Transdisciplinarities work out and among urgent, ranging and competing forms of authority and assessment, under terms of current global restructuring, academic and otherwise.
Not everyone uses the term transdisciplinary in such a historically urgent and materially located way. For some it is just another term for multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary, that is for scholarship or projects in which disciplines and their experts collaborate, or in which intellectual themes and issues necessitate travels among and between disciplines. Still, competing authorities play roles in both of these certainly.
And the term transdisciplinary is also used today by some folks who further want to focus especially on an integration of multidisciplinary practice in the context of intellectual problem solving. That is, to come up with ways to coordinate those competing forms of authority to get things done, to negotiate with and through them in order to create sometimes temporary forms of consensus authority that supply the energy to tackle big urgent problems. And these folks are often very into assessment as a way of justifying loans from and gambles with their authorities.
And a very particular and increasingly influential French project, the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research (CIRET), uses the term transdisciplinary, somewhat prophetically, to promote an understanding of the so-called unity of knowledge, between, across and beyond disciplines. These highly entrepreneurial folks are beginning to corner the market on the term. Just look at the history of editing of that entry in the Wikipedia.
My use of the term necessarily is all tangled up with these, but doesn’t sit comfortably as equivalent to any one of them. I am just too queer to feel happy with consensus authority, too much of a feminist anarchist to want to be at either end of being authoritative or being assessed, and too postmodern to think that some large fabulous unity is at the heart of it all.
That last bit is unfair to the CIRET folks who work to make clear that multiple realities are the heart of whatever their notion of such a paradoxical unity could be. And it is at that level of manifold realities, particular in space, time and constituencies, at which I focus my own interest in transdisciplinarities. I like the term “knowledge worlds” which entangles feminist social interactionists’ terminology with German knowledge vocabularies.
What is it possible to say about how Queer is part of all this in twenty minutes? I want to share bits that I hope will be of sufficient attraction to inspire more discussion of all the conceptual infrastructures I’m going to make reference to. In other words, I’m going to scope and scale among many kinds of particularizing global and globalizing materialities at different levels of detail, grain of analysis and kinds of situatedness, in order to perform as well as contextualize Queer transdisciplinarities.
But at some point in this talk you might find yourself asking “Where is the stuff? The Queer stuff?” Or the gender stuff? Or the race stuff? The stuff to think with? And the terms to center that demonstrate my faithfulness to Queer Studies and Women’s Studies. Well, I have to come clean: the stuff I think with are processes, not objects, and they may or may not be processes that are yet totally realized as substantive things. In any case they are in formation, and it is that coming-into-formation that I have always been interested in and trying to talk about.
I learned to do this from my teacher Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist, cyberneticist, and epistemologist. I tend to focus on times of such materialization while they are still undecided, could go in many directions, and are the subjects of dispute and political push and pull. They are urgent in the sense of timely, and urgent in the sense that particular groups of people want to make them the center of everyone’s attention. Who “everyone” is, is of course also contingent. Nor am I innocent of trying to center my own practice.
The four handouts I’ve passed around begin to unpack some terms, issues, lines of scholarship, and arguments among a range of knowledge worlds not always addressed as Queer, although queering and queers are agencies in all of them, no surprise. Each handout is its own little implicit argument, made in the form of a series of quotations and references in a particular order.
The fourth handout in particular describes the current stuff I’m writing about: a set of television documentaries from which I’ve learned a lot about knowledge worlds and about global restructuring. Today I want to hint that there are implications here for both Queer and feminist work and that affect plays interesting roles in the management of knowledges. And this talk itself will be online at the blog site given on each handout, so you can examine it more carefully and visually if you care to later. [That's what you are reading here.]
So for example, Handout 1 makes an argument that a posthumanities comes into being, or emerges, using that term in a technical sense, out of the semi-chaotic conditions of global restructuring.
Such a posthumanities is not, surprise, unrelated to another also uncomfortable term, posthuman. Agencies of such emergence are most certainly not restricted to human instrumentalism, individual or even collective. Worldly processes, some set into motion by people, some not, as well as people and beings, skills and devices that together constitute so-called communities of practice, are all elements of these emerging processes; that is to say, elements in new units of agency characterized by features of self-organization not captured adequately under the term human. In the Actor-Network branch of Science Studies such agencies are called actants. I want to introduce you to or remind you of a sea of actants that Queer studies folks need to be registering.
That means, as my teacher Gregory Bateson used to say, we don’t end at our skin. “Skin” at this moment in time has so many different meanings and associations among diverging knowledge worlds, that the dramatically different implications for considering what it means to say to any particular group of people, that we don’t end at our skin, becomes an example itself of transdisciplinary movement across knowledge worlds. Engaging and networking such a “riot of association,” to use a term I learned from Michael Moon, comes to be the work to take up in a posthumanities. What feminist cyberculture historian Kate Hayles calls distributed cognition (see the first side of Handout 1) and what social interactionist theorist of categorization Leigh Star describes as distributed human being (see the backside of Handout 2) name attempts to explain as clearly as one can in medias res some of the ways we network among these associations. In medias res, in the middle of things, as these things themselves resolve or not, as we look to see things as they exist for others, in different degrees of resolution, of grain of detail.
And attention to any particular grain of detail provokes response and affect. And that matters. As you can see already I’m asking you to be very generous in listening to this talk as the pattern of interconnections I want to make, especially its Queerness, may feel rather subtle. Being inside and moved around literally by the very material and conceptual structures you are analyzing and writing about is a kind of self-consciousness only partially available for explicit, or direct discussion. In practicing such research, writing and talking obliquely is often a necessity, not an obstinate refusal to be specific or propose something in particular. At times such work is necessarily performative rather than deductively argumentative or inductively hypothetical.
Other times it is descriptive, thickly or narratively, in order to share materials among communities of practice, or to set out tools, things and contexts to think with. I hope these handouts work for this. I apologize for the cognitive overload, and I’m always experimenting with strategies for working with it, rather than denying it. Transdisciplinary work befriends and experiences a range of academic and other genres of writing, entailment and analysis, together with their consequent and diverging values.
Handout 3 is on global academic restructuring, and you can turn to the second side of the page for a long quotation by Julie Thompson Klein on these terms multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Her historicizing description was made for the sake of creating some common language and collective problem-solving urgency with and for a team of experts, who were brought together in Australia in an attempt to focus national academic energies there on environmental issues such as global warming.
Klein is quite amazing in her ability to manage, even if always only partially, the diverging assumptions and even the affects that folks come to projects with, as you can see if you follow the online traces of her networking at this conference in Canberra in 2004. Klein’s book Crossing Boundaries is encyclopedic in describing attempts at managing conceptually many languages and infrastructures among knowledge worlds over the course of the eighties and nineties, with an eye to both feminist practice and science studies.
And I point out affects in this context as they matter, that is to say, they too resolve or consolidate out of material processes among conceptual infrastructures, becoming transparent elements in the very systems of management of knowledge things that produce and safeguard authority and assessment. When someone gets mad because some other scholar doesn’t seem to know one whole area of scholarship that the first would consider critical for the second’s argument, it isn’t just a personal insult, it is about a whole structure of knowledge work and how it operates. Conversely but similarly, the old Women’s Liberation Movement phrase the personal is political doesn’t have to mean that the personally emotional is all about me, but rather that a range of transparent processes that have been black-boxed as personal in order to keep the focus on something else, need some un-black-boxing right now as the politics of transdisciplinary action shifts, and that anger, or righteous rage, might signal this very urgency.
The whole of Handout 2 works to unpack terms that matter enormously to thinking transdisciplinarily and about transdisciplinarities with an attention to such management. Learning to intensively focus on particular things – say gender – is a pivotal element during the process of becoming a member of a particular community of practice (however widely distributed it might be). Taking for granted the centrality of such things, say, not having to argue for the importance of gender as a lens for analysis again and again, is the very signal of membership in such communities and thus authority within them. Not signaling such membership when it is expected but claiming authority anyway produces intensive affect, anything from discomfort and confusion, to outright challenging antagonism.
And if transdisciplinarity works among and across knowledge worlds, such intensive affect has to be a recognizable piece of these processes, not something that is taken as crazy or uncivil, however uncrazily and civilly we need to learn to activate it. The transdisciplinary problem-solvers work on this carefully, and the word “integration” sometimes means coming to some terms with how to enact such affect productively – albeit for small groups of folks, gathering for a particular purpose, for some brief amount of time, constraints that help enormously.
An open-ended, transdisciplinary notion of expertise, together with an ethical spirit of attention to the passions of communication, was conveyed by Freeman Dyson last September when he replied thus to critics of his analysis of global warming in the New York Review of Books: “I know that all opinions, including my own, may be wrong. I state my opinions firmly because I believe they are right, but I make no claim of infallibility. I beseech you…to think it possible you may be mistaken. One principle we might all accept is that the future is uncertain.”
You can see at the beginning of Handout 2 that in the mid-nineties during the height of the so-called culture, science and history “wars” feminist technoscience theorist Leigh Star put similar concerns this way: “We honestly believe that there are no positions that are epistemologically superior to any others. But I do at the same time argue with and try to overthrow those I don't agree with! Relativism in this sense does not imply neutrality – rather, it implies forswearing claims to absolute epistemological authority. This is quite different from abandoning moral commitments.” Nor is it, I would add, incompatible with promoting important epistemological claims by subjugated and situated knowledges, Queer, racialized, gendered and more.
Klein points out too, see the quotation about retrenchment on the first side of Handout 3, how under conditions of academic restructuring, interdisciplinarity can be used to justify financial decisions to consolidate units and resources, and end up promoting a kind of easily assessed instrumental practicality as if easy assessment was the factor that characterized good interdisciplinary methodology.
Conversely under academic capitalism we also may see and indeed feel intensively how disciplinary chauvinisms are made urgent, personal and compensatory, when communities of practice are required to compete for these resources and justify themselves in terms of assessment that also simplify and instrumentalize collective projects. Strengthening disciplinary identity is an easy-to-communicate way to offer authority, and working in collective projects understood as problem solving tasks is more easily instrumentalized with clear outcomes when assessment is demanded. Quantitative assessment is especially persuasive for establishing and maintaining authority in an environment in which many knowledge worlds compete, in which productivity and authority are measures for advancement, status or just getting a job done. The empirical, the data-driven, the concrete, and the local are all more manageable, more easily broken up into tasks and held accountable to a very particular set of folks and their properly urgent ethics. Yet diverging knowledge worlds keep making such management problematic, uneven, partial.
The term “community of practice” is a particularly interesting one today as it both performs and describes some of these urgent meanings for this moment: on the back of Handout 2 you can see a quotation from Katie Vann, a feminist comparative human cognition analyst currently at the Virtual Knowledge Studio in Amsterdam, but usually with the Center for Science, Technology and Society at Santa Clara University. Here in 2001 she and Geoff Bowker, science studies co-author with Leigh Star of Sorting Things Out, narrate how this term originates in the eighties in Jean Lave’s critique of educational assessment assumptions, and then in the nineties is taken up by business managers and analysts to become itself an instrument of the management of economic value creation it is also used to describe. I use it myself, as I note at the end of Handout 1, for transdisciplinary analysis in a posthumanities because I believe it is urgently important to keep making explicit our own, however uneven, implication in academic capitalism, a set of historical contingencies profoundly enrolling us under current conditions of global restructuring. The whole of Handout 3 is an introduction to some of our stakes in these conditions, and so are the quotations from Donna Haraway and Kath Weston on Handout 1.
And indeed our forms of making, sharing, demonstrating and using knowledge are created out of these conditions, a point Sharon Traweek makes fascinating in her attention to the political economy of intellectual inquiry (see the first quotation on Handout 1 and Handout 3). Many subjects of analysis among our Queer studies are elements with intensively affective meanings across knowledge worlds. Think Gay Marriage. Many Queer people struggle with skills and things, people and devices, for our lively movement among social worlds, communities of practice – gathering, trashing, being trashed, being enrolled. Think Trans Knowledges.
My own work threads through many interdisciplinary sites to map out emergent cognitive and affective skills and things, people and devices for engaging diverging knowledge worlds. The stuff in my current project turns out to be an odd set of TV documentaries that struggle among these changes and display one experimenting style of engaging them. They set up teams of experts to compete in experimental archeology to work out how things were engineered, the actions that need to be added to archives and other cultural traces of pasts.
When I analyze these TV shows as examples of changes that occurred over the nineties in knowledge work, culture industries and global academic restructuring, I work out how the contests in some of these reality-style shows is intended to create drama and pleasure in understanding quite detailed points of expertise ordinarily of interest, perhaps quite passionate interest, only to a limited membership of folks in specific communities of practice.
Grain of detail is the signal of and for membership in particular communities of practice. But this grain of detail is carefully limited and dynamically interconnected, via reenactment, to a range of possible interactive, or “playful” contexts, not all salient or available to every viewer, but presumably each salient and available to various sets of some of those viewing. This is an element of that scoping and scaling activity that such reenactments produce, and of an ability to address actively and temporally diverging audiences simultaneously.
These rather particular transmission skills were especially honed in the nineties when they became experiments amid the ideological complexities of the so-called culture wars, themselves elements in the turmoil of knowledge, culture and entertainment economies restructuring and intertwining under globalization. Privatization and public financing are important pivot points in various dynamics of any such stories, and Handout 3 offers some description of these points. Notions of what count as authors and audiences are pivotal as well. Having to address many actively diverging audiences simultaneously and having to author knowledges as merely one of multiple agencies with very limited control are both circumstances that become more and more intrusive for various communities of practice.
I understand these TV documentaries, my own work over time, and a variety of transdisciplinarities, yes, Queer ones among them, to be, quite inadvertently and yet necessarily, all reenactments of these very shifts in authorship and audience as they wade among and exemplify products of knowledge, culture and entertainment industries as these altered in the nineties. They and I struggle to make all of this relatively explicit and highly interactive, sometimes even playful. These reenactment TV shows are just one experiment in skills from a range of sites attempting to work out movement across knowledge worlds.
They practice being just frustratingly alien enough to actually be nodes in trial and error learning, yet satisfying and successful enough to keep viewers hooked on their own sensations of shifting cognition and intensities of affect, however plain or subtle, hooked on sensations of their own possible agencies in groupings beyond individual control.
I like to say that reenactments are not a way to keep pasts and presents authoritatively apart. Nor do Queer transdisciplinarities keep apart, separated, managed, or delimited by membership, authorities and alternative knowledges; or, for that matter, affects and cognitions, metaphors and referents, or forms of academic expertise and cultural entertainment. The only too flexible knowledges of globalization, transdisciplinarities, new media, all plunge us into uncertainties, risk, collusion and collaboration; conditions that – as with responsibilities to multiple audiences from painfully limited authorships – we do not control, and in which we are elements in emergent reorganizations of knowledge economies.
Scoping and scaling keeps relocating the agencies we do have as we discover that agency and control are rarely at the same scale of analysis. Consciousness at the levels of infrastructure, variation, inclusion, undecideability, means we are "bits" of such transdisciplinizing "consciousness," not a Leonardo-like "Man," or even Hu-man, at its center. This is neither a celebration or an indictment. No, Queer transdisciplinarities are our experiments in co-creation, making something out of where we are.
SCOPING AND SCALING ACTION • one activity of reenactment, a property of re-enaction
Imagine the term reenactment referring to a Google satellite map's departure point:
View Larger Map
a concrete venue also coming to include a lot of conceptual territory around it. To see the whole territory we pan out and up for a satellite view, or we come in closer and closer to see the very particular street patterns, maybe even to detail the backyard of a specific house. We move the orientation point around with our mouse, cursor, finger or whatever, to shift scope and scale.
Use moving around in Google hybrid view literally and figuratively as an example for experiencing a set of cognitive sensations.
Katie King is Associate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a Fellow of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). She received her Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her interdisciplinary scholarship is located at the intersection of feminist technoscience studies, cyberculture and media studies, and LGBT Studies. Her first book was Theory in its Feminist Travels: conversations in U.S. women's movements. She has two others in progress now, Speaking with Things, an introduction to writing technologies, and the one from which this talk comes:
Networked Reenactments, flexible knowledges under globalization.
1: Nationalities, Sexualities and Global TV: Highlander, Xena, and meanings of European Union (on action adventure TV, reenactment styles, economic and image transnationalisms in ambi-sexualities and anti-racisms, and commercially exuberant feminisms)
2: Trust in Flexible Knowledges: Reenacting Science in American Life at the Smithsonian (on some political materialities of public science education, and on national patronage as heritage culture and enterprise culture)
3: Time Traveling Experiments connect TV and the Web (how entertainment technologies come to complete and shape science styled TV in the nineties; the interplay between television and the web; mobilizations of gender and race)
4: Scholars and Intellectual Entrepreneurs (TV becomes a model for and simulation of scholarly activity under global academic restructuring in the nineties and after)