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The P2P epistemological shift towards undisciplinarity

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
4th May 2009


On April 27, Mark Taylor wrote a much remarked editorial, The End of the University as We Know It, criticising the traditional university approach to learning, proposing a set of seven inter-related reforms.

He wrote amongst other things that:

“GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost.”

One of his charges is the outmoded organization in more and more arcane subdisciplines, each of which is defending its institutional turf, writing articles that are sometimes readable by only a dozen people in the world, but that become primary endeavours because of the competitive ‘publish or perish’ path to tenure.

(Note that his editorial has been strongly criticized for being out of touch with reality.)

So, if disciplinarity is a problem, what’s the solution?

John Marshall favours a transdisciplinary approach:

“Previous models of university-based research have amplified the tendency for knowledge to pile up in vertically specialised ‘silos’. This structure can be held responsible for perpetuating divisions between domains that isolate knowledge from the contexts in which it is can be used. The existing models of academic structures are the ’sacred cows’ of contemporary education. Unfortunately (for the most part) they also operate as artificial barriers to the next generation of art-design-technology practitioners. Neil Gershenfeld (2005) points out that ‘making’ has been considered an ‘illiberal art’ since the Renaissance. He points out that industrial mechanization has meant that skilled workers that once used to do many things now do only one and that thinking about how to make things became the business of specialists. A ‘transdisciplinary’ approach recognises the boundaries of the problem being addressed, not the artificial boundaries of disciplines.”

For the Near Future Laboratory blog, this doesn’t go far enough, what we need is a break from the disciplines altogether, a move to undisciplinarity.

(note the evolutionary thrust here, from disciplinarity, to interdisciplinarity, via transdisciplinarity, to undisciplinarity; forgetting about disciplines altogether being a more radical step than merely ‘transcending’ the disciplines, which implies they are still there to be transcended)

Indeed, Interdisciplinarity is Dead!

“Where I teach, the keyword has been interdisciplinarity, but it’s only lip service that often devolves into clumsy, politically fraught, contentious projects that maybe get completed..after a few years”

So:

“I prefer the term “undisciplinary” because it wants nothing to do with playing the usual games, according to the usual logics (doing things to serve a specific mode of capital accumulation and capital production — whether knowledge-as-property, culture-as-commodity, objects or other materializations that can be sold for profit.) It’s not “interdisciplinary” — which I bought into once. Neither is it transdisciplinary, which I admittedly don’t know that much about, but suspect it’s a bit of an over-theorized alternative to “interdisciplinary”

“Undisciplinarity” is as much a way of doing work as it is a departure from ways of doing work, even what “counts” as work. It is a work habit and approach to creating and circulating culture that can go its own way, without worrying about working outside of what histories-of-disciplines say is “proper” work. It’s “undisciplined” and not willing or even able to operate within the realm of consumer capitalism and capital accumulation. You can’t be wrong — or have old-timers tell you how to do what you want to do. This is a good thing, it means new knowledge is created rather than incremental contributions to a body of existing knowledge. It means new ways of working, new practices, new unexpected processes and projects come to be, almost by definition. It’s not for everyone. Many if not most people need to be told how to do what they do. They need discipline and boundaries and steps and rules. They need to know what’s good, and what’s bad. They need to know what the boundaries are and where the limits of the discipline lie. And this makes sure that the creation of specific, sensible knowledge is created.

Why is this important? Why “undisciplinarity”? Because we need more playful and habitable worlds that the old forms of knowledge production are ill-equipped to produce.”

It’s an epistemological shift, not (only) new ways of fixing the problems the old disciplinary and interdisciplinary practices created in the first place.

Undisciplinarity, as the author explains here, starts with the object of study directly.

That is also a possible connection to peer to peer dynamics, which is a object-oriented sociality, just as undisciplinarity could be considered, a object-oriented research practice.

For more information, we monitor P2P epistemological trends through a delicious tag, and we have a special section of our wiki devoted to it.

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