Ned Rossiter on Mon, 10 Apr 2006 10:29:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Organised Networks: Transdisciplinarity and New Institutional Forms

Finnish Social Forum, Helsinki, 1-2 April, 2006
'Autonomous Research' seminar

'Organised Networks: Transdisciplinarity and New Institutional Forms'

Ned Rossiter

The social-technical dynamics of ICT-based networks constitute organisation in
ways substantively different from networked organisations (unions, state, firms,
universities). My interest in this paper is to say a few things about the process
of scalar transformation and transdisciplinarity as they relate to the invention
of new institutional forms. Having established these background conditions,
processes and practices, I will then move on to the topic of autonomous education.

Institutions function to organise social relations. It follows, then, that the
social-technical dynamics peculiar to a range of digital media technologies
(mailing lists, collaborative blogs, wikis, content management systems) institute
new modes of networked sociality. It is easy to dismiss this process of emergent
institutionalisation. Many would assert that it simply results in a
bureaucratisation and rigidity of social-technical communication systems whose
default setting is one of flows, decentralisation, horizontality, etc. I would
suggest such knee-jerk, technically incorrect responses risk a disengagement from
the political and thus from politics. There is a passivity that attends this kind
of position. Moreover, it is a position that fails the politics of reappropriating
the psychic, social and semiotic territory of institutions. The process of
instituting networks involves a movement toward the strategic rather than tactical
dimension of net politics.  Another reason to turn towards the strategic dimension
has to do with the short-termism that accompanies many tactical projects. The
logic of the tactic is one of situated intervention. And then it disappears. There
are of course some notable exceptions -- indymedia, makrolab and the Yes Men come
to mind as quite long-term experiments in networks and tactical media; yet these
exceptions are not, I would suggest, instances of transdisciplinarity.

The practice of transdisciplinarity preconditions the invention of new
institutional forms. As Gary Genosko notes of the metamethodology of Felix
Guattari, transdisciplinarity is predicated on experiments in institutional
formation (2003: 29). In the case of organised networks, transdisciplinarity is
constituted by "the political", by the tensions that underpin cross-sectoral,
multi-institutional engagements that make possible new modes and new forms of
research.  Transdisciplinarity can be distinguished from interdisciplinary or
multidisciplinary research. Despite all the claims in OECD reports and government
and university policy rhetoric on research, interdisciplinary is not about
networks but rather clusters, and typically takes place in 'private and public
labs and research centres'.[1] Such settings, and the institutional and political-
economic conditions which lead to interdisciplinary research, also results in
another key difference with trandisciplinarity.  Interdisciplinarity rests within
the regime of intellectual property, which operate as an architecture of control.
As such, the knowledge produced is locked up and contained; it refuses the social
relations that make possible the development of intellectual action, and it
therefore refuses the potential for social transformation because of the way
knowledge is enclosed within a property relation.

This is not to dispense with tactics since tactics are the source of renewal.
Interestingly enough, tactics parallel the logic of capital.  If you consider
core-periphery relations, if you look at the way in which capital has to
incorporate, appropriate or what Brian Holmes spoke of as a cooptation of the
margins (or the productive efforts of the artist, cultural critic, designer) in
order to replenish and reproduce itself,[2] we see this operation historically
time and again. It's therefore important to remember that autonomists are not
somehow operating outside the state but rather operating as disruptive
potentiality whose difference is defined by relations of negation, refusal,
exodus, subtraction, etc. Certainly there are important qualitative differences in
the relation individuals and peoples have with the state. Think, for instance, of
the experience of migrants and so-called illegal movement of peoples across
territories, or the precarious worker.  Precarity, let's remember, is an
experience that traverses a range of class scales, and may even be considered as a
post-Fordist technique of border control that distinguishes 'self-managed
exploitation... from those who must be exploited (or worse) by direct

So while the organised network has a relative institutional autonomy, by necessity
it must engage other institutional partners who may often be opposed to the
interests of networks. Organised networks share something with NGOs, CSOs or even
think-tanks. Yet there is a radical dissimilarity and qualitative difference
between organised networks and these other institutional forms. Take NGOs and
CSOs, for example, and the techniques of governance adopted throughout the WSIS
process. Within any partnership there is of course a compromise. In order to
obtain the necessary discursive legitimacy required to participate within the
institutional settings of WSIS, NGOs and CSOs had to engage a model of
organisation that was antithetical to the self-organising logic of networks. NGOs
and CSOs were thus required to adopt the representational form known throughout
WSIS as "multistakeholderism" - the primary model of governance for managing, if
not realising, relations between business, government and civil society.
Multistakeholderism is predicated on representative models of liberal democracy,
and such abstraction frequently conflicts with the grass-roots networks that
characterise many NGOs and CSOs.  Representation does not correspond with the
logic of networks, which are better understood as non-representational forms of

In saying this I do not wish to valorise the horizontality of networks. The
tendency of networks to be described in terms of horizontality results in an
occlusion of "the political", which consists of antagonisms that underpin
sociality. As I have discussed on other occasions, it is technically and socially
incorrect to assume that hierarchical and centralising architectures and practices
are absent from net cultures. At the technical level, one only has to look at the
debates surrounding the information society and internet governance: hierarchical
and political-economic aspects of assigning domain names, location of root
servers, politics of IPRs, uneven geography of information flows, determination of
standards, effects of trade agreements on content production and distribution,
etc. The hierarchical dimension to networked sociality is easy to account for:

one only has consider the cohort of alpha males scheming in the back rooms of so
many organisational forms. Even in the case of wikis, which on the surface appear
to be exemplary non-representational forms insofar as labour on content production
is anonymous, again we need only to venture through the backdoor to see the
ringleaders at work. Of course the technical and social aspects of ICT networks
are not mutually exclusive, but rather interpenetrate one another in a plethora of
ways. A challenge for organised networks is thus to address the software problem
and the social problem.

The collaborative interest of organised networks is to consider what the scalar
transformation of organised networks entails vis-=E0-vis the aggregation of
educational resources distributed within and across networks. Networks have been
fantastic at developing educational resources such as documentation of open source
software, university course materials, health-care information, tips on political
organisation, etc. Obviously there's a lot to learn from NGOs and the revival of
union organising as seen in the Justice for Janitors movement. Certainly my
position is not to dismiss these institutional forms outright. A focus on
educational resources strikes me as a matter of tactics that feed strategic
interests. Without the tactical, organised networks collapse into stasis.  Here it
is necessary to recognise the situation of informational politics.  Paradoxically,
perhaps, neoliberalism - with its logic of outsourcing, privatisation and
dissembling institutional frameworks - conditions the possibility of organised
networks. Just as NGOs and CSOs have filled the void created by the neoliberal
state's evacuation from the social, so too must organised networks seize upon the
institutional persona of the "external provider".

What I am suggesting, then, is for networks to intervene into the market of higher
education. The university is quite a vulnerable institution actually. It is quite
uncertain, and indeed could be characterised as a place of precarity for many. As
many have experienced, the labour force of universities is predominantly composed
of casual workers whose seasonal pattern of employment resembles that of the
strawberry picker. Unions typically fail to represent the interests of casual
workers, since their interest is to protect the security of those with tenured

As far as I can determine, an intervention into education market is one of the few
ways in which organised networks may obtain economic autonomy, which depends upon
securing an economic base. Without this, organised networks have little chance of
sustainability and little possibility of scalar transformation. There is a
capacity for networks to mobilise their resources in transversal ways in the form
of master classes, summer schools, and training programs that operate both
internally to and externally from universities. Universities are undergoing a
process of losing their expertise, their ability to bring in new knowledge and to
transform the disciplines, which have become incredibly rigid and dull.
Universities can be characterised by their deficiency of thought. They don't know
how to move themselves in ways that incorporate what Bateson called 'the
difference that makes a difference'. The strange thing is that neoliberalism makes
possible the difference that makes a difference.  This is the perversity of
neoliberalism. The structural logic of neoliberalism makes possible openings, and
openings invite interventions that begin to enable the financing of autonomous,
precarious, experimental research and teaching that shows no sign of being catered
for in current OECD, government and university policy directives.

My proposal can be easily criticised for appropriating the outside - the
experimental elements that so often energise networks on the frontline of
invention - and closing it down again. This is the classic critique of
appropriation. We see this most obviously in the fashion industries. Remember
punk? If you wanted, you could pay 200 bucks for a pair of jeans with a rip in
them. Hilariously, there was no shortage of idiots who went out and purchased
their damaged goods.  The same can be said about knowledge. What functions against
the closure of minds and resources is the fact that educational business projects
undertaken by a network of networks is predicated on principles of open source
software, society and culture. Obviously there will be fights over how best to
redistribute funds within and across networks. But that's a matter that can be
sorted out. Having said this, a problem remains. There is only so much free labour
that can be done within the networks. Certainly it helps networks to have a
parasitical relation with networked organisations (universities, for example). But
eventually free labour exhausts itself.

My ideas on transdisciplinarity are indebted to exchanges with Soenke 
Zehle, among others.

1. Gary Genosko, =91F=E9lix Guattari: Towards a Transdisciplinary 
Metamethodology=92, Angelaki 8.1 (2003): 29-140.

2. Video recordings of talks by Carlos Fern=E1ndez, Brian Holmes, and 

Stevphen Shukaitis and the follow-up discussions can be found at:

3. Angela Mitropoulos and Brett Neilson, 'Exceptional Times, Non-
Governmental Spacings, and Impolitical Movements', Vacarme (Janvier, 

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