Pascal Nicolas-Le Strat
Translated by Millay Hyatt
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Pour consulter le texte en français: Des compétences indisciplinées

Undisciplined Competences

A competence is normally understood as a quality, property, or capacity someone holds or exercises by virtue of her status, training, or qualifications, and which distinguishes her from others. This definition asserts a perspective that is both identitarian (competence as a factor of professional belonging and recognition) and individualist (competence as an attribute of a person). In this view, everyone is assigned his own competence—that, for instance, of an artist, sociologist, architect, or teacher—and the different competences come up against each other, each supported by the holder’s social position or disciplinary territory. They come up against each other and are mutually inaccessible, exaggerate their own specificity, and compete for legitimacy. As a result, each competence inevitably remains confined to its own knowledge and know-how. How can we move beyond this way of thinking that isolates professionals in an aloof efficiency and identity?

This article was inspired by the “Pooling Competences and Incompetences” workshop led by François Deck at the École supérieure d'art in Grenoble. The guiding question of the seminar was: how do we describe a practice without limiting ourselves to the expectations of it that are the most obvious (the capacities that are actually exercised) and most individualized (the qualities exhibited by a person)? Together with the art students in the workshop we experimented with new ways of conceiving the notion of competence, in hopes of introducing this notion into a horizon of action and analysis far different from that of the dominant ideology of human resources or integration policy.


Incompetence, or the promise of a new approach to learning

François Deck emphasizes that “artists are often forced to forget some of their acquired competences in order to situate themselves in a state of non-knowledge and of reconfiguration of their memory. Creation does not exist without some jettisoning of what is known. Competences, professionalism, can hold back the intelligence of a project and its opening out, while incompetence can be a source of renewal. Incompetence is a potential for doing things another way, in the sense that one can overcome one’s incompetence by inventing unforeseen solutions. In artistic terms, incompetences are as interesting as competences when the former become transformed into questions. (1) […] We can replace the idea of competences individualized and capitalized on by an instrumentalized individual with the idea of a variety of competences and incompetences interacting with each other. This kind of tactic gives rise to new questions and new approaches and makes new resources available.” (2) Why should we automatically associate incompetence with a negative experience, with failure or insufficiency, when it incorporates an authentic promise? The experience of incompetence can allow us to find a new approach to learning; it can give us the opportunity to begin questioning again and to engage with issues we hadn’t even thought of. A practice cannot be reduced to the aspect of skill. A practice necessarily provokes uncertainty and creates difficulties, and is constituted by the knowledge and know-how it gains and makes use of as it interacts with these obstacles. It is thus entirely appropriate to try to seize a practice at the moment it hesitates and becomes confused, the moment it encounters a limit and has no choice but to accept its own incompetence. What is it that worries us at such moments? What makes us hesitate? No doubt it is the new horizon coming into view, the future beginning to take shape in a particular way, but still hazy, barely accessible. And yet incompetence provides our activity with the best possible perspective when it invites us to experiment with our knowledge in new ways and to reformulate it according to new contexts of action and thought.


Competence is not primarily a matter of subjects but of dispositives

What dispositive(s) must a working group acquire so that it can explicitly pose the questions that concern and engage it as a group? What procedures and methods can help a project group reconstitute its field of experience in order to integrate an anomalous voice or a new event? What operating procedures must it adopt if it wants to preserve a reflexive and distanced relation to its own areas of intervention? A group heightens or decreases its capacity for questioning, problematizing, and, ultimately, acting depending on the dispositives of work it employs. By placing the emphasis on the conception and assemblage of dispositives, we can avoid two pitfalls: on one hand, the identification of competence with the performing individual as in contemporary capitalism, and, on the other, its sublimation in an ideal collective, which is often articulated quite abstractly, almost as an incantation, by critical voices that aspire to greater collegiality and cooperation. Our question is: how does competence come about? What produces it? Not the overextended individual subject of liberalism, performing ever more efficiently, nor the exceedingly idealized collective subject evoked by very abstract theories of cooperation. Competence derives rather from the “quality” of a dispositive. Competence comes from the collective assemblage constituted by the group, which then in turn becomes constitutive of its own action. Competence comes from the set of procedures the group experiments with that determine, situation by situation, the way in which the group relates to itself and its capacity for action.


Competence is just as much an issue of openness as of talent

Exercising a competence is not a matter of simply implementing or applying the talents with which a person or group is endowed and that qualify it to act. Exercising a competence means constantly working to re-elaborate and reconfigure the professional situations in which these aptitudes are likely to be invested. In other words, a competence cannot be reduced to its immediate qualities. On the contrary, it becomes impoverished if it is treated as coinciding too narrowly with itself, if it is categorically equated with the talents that characterize it at the present moment. A competence cannot stay confined to a single horizon of possibilities, but needs to be redeployed and modulated according to the contexts it ventures into. The exercise of a competence can thus be read as a process of successive translations and displacements that each time open up new opportunities for development. How can we construct this kind of openness? How can we preserve this kind of permeability? How can we prevent the constraint of institutional divisions or disciplinary boundaries leading a competence to restrict its perspective and withdraw to its own most well-known and consensual inclinations? How can we preserve its openness? A competence is only incompletely represented by the knowledge and know-how it incorporates and aspires to exercise. Its relevance is equally borne out by means of other, quieter qualities, which are sometimes uncertain, and definitely more difficult to discern, but no less indispensable: its receptivity, permeability, sensitivity, and openness.


Taking an interest without taking control

We could define each competence as “first-choice” knowledge or know-how that opens up a perspective without claiming to define it, that intervenes in a situation without intercepting it in its totality. We would thus basically identify the exercise of a competence with its founding and inaugural function. An artist, a sociologist, or an architect will each approach a situation differently, according to their own particular trajectory. Every competence constitutes an approach to the matter at hand that is distinct as well as characteristic of its abilities and sensibilities. The exercise of a competence is a singular way of responding and adjusting to a real circumstance without subduing or totalizing it. Applying a competence is a sign of interest, which is what motivates us to act in a given situation in the first place, but not of the desire to control, recover, or appropriate. A competence should be practiced with a certain restraint if it is not to be intrusive (on the level of action) or inquisitorial (on the level of expertise). The capacity of a competence to introduce a new point of view and to allow a new perspective to emerge gives it an undeniable constitutive reach; on the other hand, the associated practice remains largely undecided and undetermined. A competence gives us the opportunity to encounter a wide range of realities on numerous terrains, on the condition that we engage with this encounter on a sufficiently open and receptive register. If a competence is expressed in a too self-assured manner, it risks acting like a mirror and of obtaining only what was predetermined and preconceived at the outset. This, however, destroys any possibility of an actual encounter—most likely out of fear of being surprised by the very reality the competence was meant to interrogate and engage.


A competence that does not contain its own relevance within itself

Why does a competence appear to be more relevant in one context and less in another? Where does it get its validity? On what basis does it act? Either a competence contains its own relevance that it “naturally” manifests, or it only delivers its full potential when put to the test of an actual situation or context. In the first case, its relevance can be said to manifest itself with a greater or lesser degree of success; in the second, relevance is proven in relation to the questions faced and the objections encountered. The latter view constitutes an important shift in perspective, and is accompanied by a logical reversal. The first conception posits a given relevance, which is immediately and directly correlated to the knowledge and the know-how in which it is embedded. The second gives us an idea of relevance that is impossible to define as such. Here relevance is fundamentally undecideable and only reveals itself in a particular situation. This inevitable uncertainty, however, leaves us neither helpless nor powerless. Instead it obliges us: obliges us to look more closely, to explore further, to observe with even greater attention. The uncertainty becomes motivating and, in turn, productive of new competences. Above we spoke of faculties that incorporate their essential qualities from the beginning, which they then progressively unfold and repeat. We have now arrived at an entirely different point of view, which we will describe as ecosophical. In this view, a competence establishes its relevance according to its own ecology, that is, according to everything outside of itself it confronts and is tested by, and in consideration of the multiple interactions with its environment. It is the context in which it is exercised that gives it relevance; it does not establish relevance on its own.


A competence that voluntarily makes itself vulnerable to the actions of others

When a competence is exercised in a situation of cooperation, it necessarily transcends its normal aims and uses; it goes beyond the scope of its discipline and surpasses its initial intention. Other professionals solicit the competence in unexpected situations, and it gradually breaks the institutional, statutory, or disciplinary ties that ordinarily validate and qualify it. This is the risk of exercising a competence in such a defenseless way. But does this mean that the prerogatives of the competence will be threatened, its efficiency undercut? Will its knowledge and know-how be dissolved and scattered? Perhaps an entirely different outcome is possible. We may legitimately suppose that the exercise of a competence will, in fact, hardly exhaust its resources. In addition to everything it displays most visibly and explicitly, a competence is also made up of a multiplicity of becomings in outline form, rough drafts only waiting to be fleshed out. Cooperative work acts as a trigger or switch for this process; it functions as developer and ignition. Working cooperatively enhances that which normally appears only on a small scale. It replaces stifling procedures with new perspectives. Cooperation creates a privileged situation in which incompletely developed faculties can become realized, in which capacities that were silent can be brought to life, and in which long-suppressed hypotheses of action can become concrete. Competence reinvents itself in the very course of its activity by voluntarily making itself vulnerable to the actions of others. It asserts itself in the process of experimenting and is enacted to the extent that it is needed.


(1) François Deck, “Disonancias Seminar,” Bilbao, 20&21 November 2007. Translation slightly modified.

(2) François Deck, “Mutualiser les incompétences” in XV Biennale de Paris, Éditions Biennale de Paris, 2007, p. 1060.


Pascal Nicolas-Le Strat
(Translated by Millay Hyatt)