[-empyre-] transdisciplinarity and transnetworks

nicholas knouf nak44 at cornell.edu
Wed Apr 14 11:45:49 EST 2010

Dear -empyre-,

Apologies to coming late to this discussion.  Thanks to Tim and Renate
for inviting me to participate, although I wish it were under better
circumstances.  Thanks as well to the other participants who have
already posted thoughtful commentary on the situation.

I want to explore first off the relevance of EDT and bang lab's work for
my own development in this space, and then go through two of my recent
projects that engage with similar problematics.

As a graduate student I am coming to the work of tactical media years
after statements of its demise.  Nevertheless, I think the recent
incidents show its continued relevance and development into novel forms.
 The recriminations against Ricardo, Brett, Micha, and others show
atavistic tendencies and a return to the attacks that we witnessed
against CAE during the mid 2000s and the subpoenas sent to the
developers of txtmob in 2008.  This, along with other developments in
the context of the US, ought to disspell any simplistic notions that we
are living in a different time after the election of Obama.

The work of EDT and bang lab has been formative for my own development,
as their projects show how networked activism can go beyond agit-prop by
incorporating poetic statements that build off the materiality of
networks.  The work of everyone behind EDT and the bang lab shows a
continued willingness to disrupt the mechanisms of power, especially as
the Internet has steadily stratified into staid configurations based on
mass-media semiotics.

I want to pick up on a term that Micha used in her post, and that is the
word "trans".  One of the most important methodological components of
bang lab's work, in my view, is its resonance with what Guattari called
"transdisciplinarity", the need to think across disciplinary boundaries
and develop new assemblages of practice that work across (rather that
within and between) traditional fields.  This works to counter the
take-up of "interdisciplinarity" and "multidisciplinarity" by the
University and funding bodies---at least until transdisciplinarity
itself becomes yet another buzzword.  I'd be interested to hear if Micha
sees connections between her use of the word trans and Guattari's
development of the prefix.  (As a side note, Gary Genosko has a very
interesting paper in Angelaki entitled "Félix Guattari: towards a
transdisciplinary metamethodology" from a few years ago detailing the
key points of Guattari's use of the word; if you don't have access to
Angelaki from your site, I'd be happy to send you a copy.)

To turn to my own work.  Like Micha I too have been interested in the
ways in which we can use the university as a site of political
engagement.  Partially as a result of the changes underway in the
university across the world, hastened by the developments of the
so-called financial "crisis", and partially as a result of reading about
other struggles in universities that have been described ably by the
members of the edu-factory collective (http://www.edu-factory.org/), I
have been developing over the past year a project called MAICgregator
(http://maicgregator.org/).  This is a Firefox extension that aggregates
information about the military-academic-industrial complex (MAIC) and
overlays it on university websites.  It was occasioned by my desire to
interject alternative representations into the heavily-controlled space
of the university website, a space that tends to efface any friction and
of course highlights only the "positive", meaning that which can improve
the University's image and consequently bottom-line.  I collect
information about Department of Defense (DoD) funding, DoD grants to
small businesses and Universities, press releases about the University,
news items mentioning the University, and clinical trials in which the
University is involved.  As well, I wanted to put a "face", so to speak,
on the trustees of the university.  These people have the ability to
make decisions on all manner of issues, including choices about tenure,
capital projects, and most importantly, financial investments of the
University's endowment.  The transporting of funding strategies from
Wall Street to the University over the past decade is one major
contributor to the precipitous fall of many Universities' endowments.
This component of the project works to try and "discover" who these
people are and "find" their photos using an image search, while at the
same time showing how the techniques of data mining (which are the
technical underpinnings of the project) often produce spurious results.
 Finally, I have just added a component that highlights words on
University webpages that seem to be especially important to the
University today, words such as "business", "innovation", and
"technology transfer".  (You can see a video of MAICgregator at work at
http://maicgregator.org/post/27 as well as download it from the
MAICgregator homepage.)

Part of this project is to also contest the stranglehold of corporate
interests and "clean design" on the construction of the web.  I want to
work within the tension between simply presenting "more information"
that I have collected from an alternative set of sources and other
poetic ways of displaying it.  The idea is to consider the "mashup" in a
way that does not simply reinforce traditional ways of engaging with
data.  To that end I am also working to release an interface to the data
I have collected to allow others to rework it if they so choose; I hope
to release this interface over the summer.

Obviously something like MAICgregator does not directly change the major
structural issues facing Universities today such as the transplanting of
the Bologna process to the US.  As well, much of what it collects will
not be unknown to empyre subscribes.  Nevertheless, I see Firefox
extensions like MAICgregator (as well as others; see
http://artzilla.org/ ) as one way to challenge the control over the
computing infrastructure on University campuses.  Given the ability to
install these extensions on library and lab machines, even if only for a
short period of time, we can potentially open up portions of the web
once more.  Additionally, by their very nature Firefox extensions
include their (client) source code, enabling others to understand how to
mutate the materiality of the web.

The second project I want to mention is called Fluid Nexus
(http://fluidnexus.net/ ).  Like the Transborder Immigrant Tool, this
too is a mobile phone application.  The idea is to provide a way to send
messages (text, images, video, audio) independent of the mobile phone
network.  The way this works is by using Bluetooth to send the
information to nearby phones; people then carry this information to
other places, the information hops to other phones, and thus the data is
transferred by movement throughout the world, without relying on a
corporate- or state-controlled network infrastructure.  This project
came out of reading blogs and news reports during the war in Lebanon in
2006 and the protests in Burma in 2007, when the fragility of these
centralized mechanisms was all-too-apparent.  Fluid Nexus exists as free
software for Nokia phones; this is not insignificant, as the continued
advance of Apple's closed phone platform portends dangerous restrictions
on our ability to modify the materiality of the mobile phone.

Fluid Nexus has not been deployed anywhere as of yet; it works as a
barely functioning prototype.  Nevertheless, even in this state, it has
raised all sorts of fear amongst those in the academy.  With my
collaborators I have written a few grant proposals to my home
institution to further the development of the software.  Each time we
have been rejected.  However, what is important in our context is the
language used in these rejections.  Keep in mind that these are comments
from faculty members: "I can imagine it being of as much interest to
criminals or terrorists as to oppressed youth or revolutionary
democrats."  And: "A final question is how does such a technology stay
out of the hands of organized crime, and other powerful folks wanting to
work offline?"

Such comments fail to understand the dangerousness of using these words
to describe the work of a graduate student.  They fail to understand the
multistability of technology.  They fail to consider how these projects
can work to address uneven---to put it lightly---power relationships.
In presentations of this project to engineers who receive DoD funding
and work in similar areas, I asked if they had ever received similar
criticisms; of course their answer was no.  The denial of funding for
this type of work functions to keep the space of application limited, to
restrict its potential widespread distribution and further development.

Sadly, all of this is not surprising, given the University's traditional
role in reproducing the means of reproduction.  As Stevphen Shukaitis
and David Graeber have ably demonstrated, any belief in the University
as a space of radical thought has to be understood as relating to a
particular historical moment based in the late 1960s.  Nevertheless, as
others have brought up, I still believe in the power of utopias to
(eventually) effect change, and still hope to see the University as a
place where that change can develop and occur.  Our challenge, then, is
how to understand the contradictions involved in our own placement
within the university; how to bring those contradictions to light within
pedagogical moments; and how to effectively counter regressive
tendencies that threaten to shut down the very possibility of these
moments.  This is a question, in my mind at least, of developing new
forms of "organized networks", as described by Geert Lovink and Ned
Rossiter; I see this list as functioning within that space.  I look
forward to our further discussions around these problematics that I hope
resonate with others.


nick knouf

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