May 01, 2013

Some Thoughts on Going ‘Trans–‘

El Topo leaving for a plateau.

At the first meeting of our group we had a rather stimulating discussion about the political underpinnings of such fashionable concepts as inter-, multi- and trans-disciplinarity, guided by the theoretical exposition offered by Hark (2007). One of the questions that emerge in Hark’s (2007) paper, and on which we have spent a considerable amount of time, is how seriously we should treat the critical aspirations of some such projects, given how comfortably they often sit within the politics of the academia - itself situated in the neoliberal market - and their ambiguous relation to the ordinary disciplinary structures. The challenge for the Gendered Knowledges in particular, it appears, is how to think critically of the institutions of the Higher Education, which not only provide the material conditions for our work, but also legitimize (or not) the conceptual and methodological strategies available to researchers.

Multi- and inter-disciplinary enterprises, it is proposed, are derivative from the pre-existing disciplines and as such, we may add, are a part of the general economy of academic exchange, without necessarily engaging with the university’s outside (Nowotny, Gibbon & Scott, 2001: 181). Even when an interdisciplinary project thus construed does not eventually crystallize into an independent discipline, though Nowotny et al. (2001) argue such is the dominant tendency, it is always organized in a hegemonic fashion of a unified theoretical whole governed by a set of fundamental axioms or overriding concerns – notwithstanding, of course, the plurality of resources it may draw on and colonize in turn. One difficulty, then, for an academic project with political ambitions consists in finding a way of breaking down the hegemony of the institutionalized knowledge, and inter- and multi-disciplinarity, at least as presented by Hark (2007), offer little hope of actually meeting this objective. In what follows, I will sketch out a brief outline of trans-disciplinarity conceived broadly alongside Deleuzian lines, as a possible methodological alternative.

The first thing to note is that Deleuzian ‘trans-‘ does not refer primarily to a relationship between the pre-established structures, say of academic disciplines, but rather a relation between a structure (conceptual, political, institutional, etc.) and its outside (Alliez, 2011: 38) Such relationship is par excellence dynamic and it works towards destabilizing of the former as a power centre. Neither is it a question of “adding a higher dimension” to what we already have, which could consist in the creation of an interdisciplinary program with a view of imposing new sovereign significations on the pre-existing fields (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 6). Instead, the aim of Deleuze and Guattari’s trans-disciplinary machine is a production of an entirely non-foundational knowledge. Their second joint project, A Thousand Plateaus, is itself an attempt at thinking a non-foundational philosophy. The book does not consist of chapters, but of what they call plateaus – assemblages of observations on different matters spanning from psychoanalysis, linguistics, politics, etc., to even geology, which are to be read in no distinct order, thus potentially forming a wide range of different conceptual connections.

Deleuze and Guattari portray the processes of knowledge production in charmingly quirky terms borrowed from botany. The concepts operative in different disciplines are defined as rhizomes, subject to the laws of organic growth, which see them constantly forming new heterogeneous connections, or strategic bio-alliances, with other organic entities. “[…] any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order.” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 7) The arborescent, or tree-like, organization of knowledge – proceeding from the fixed foundation-stem - is for them an artificial, and the most unwelcome blockage to the natural processes of proliferation of discourses, which despite its pretences itself feeds on the rhizomatic modes of production (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 11). As a consequence, each chapter-plateau making up A Thousand Plateaus stages a rhizomatic dismantling of different foundational structures of knowledge, without offering any newly fixed order in their stead. Their point, after all, is to liberate the creative energies, as much in the conceptual as in the material sense.

Rather than exploring Deleuze’s late philosophy in any depth, I would just like to highlight what could be an interesting application of the rhizomatic model of knowledge to our current project. Going rhizomatic about gender or sexuality is by all means compatible with what Katha, following Fish (1991), describes in an earlier note as a ‘radical interdisciplinarity,’ which, she says, consciously “relates to broader social and political questions and struggles.” The rhizomatic manner of relating to such political concerns would perhaps consist in engaging the academic apparatus with the real-world language games and actual political practices, by way of a perpetual process of cross-interrogation, rather than the establishing of a new disciplinary platform. While the institutional framework remains the material basis of social research, the absorption of concepts and strategies from outside of the university could set it in a motion of un-founding and work towards new creative transformations. The politics of the academia could thus find a sensible counter-balance.

An interesting example of going transdisciplinary about sex is furnished by a recent paper by Stella Sandford (2011). Her positive conclusion notwithstanding (that sex should be something akin to Kant’s transcendental illusion), it is interesting to note just how she carries out her investigation. Sandford assumes, and rightly so, that concepts operative in distinct disciplines are not their sole property. Instead, they usually derive from common linguistic practices, which vary across linguistic communities. Should a concept be employed by more than one discipline, as it is the case with sex, then this also causes further semantic divergence. Sandford traces some of such differences and maps on them a series of more or less known attempts at defining sex. Eventually, she develops a new critical concept of sex which draws on, and accounts for these various tendencies.

Something along the lines of Sandford’s own project, that is to say, a process of forging connections leading away from the institutionalized ways of talking about inequality, gender, etc., could not only enrich our understanding of the issues in question, but also, potentially, prove more promising politically. It is more than certain that the pattern described here overlaps in significant respects with other conceptions of a range of x-disciplinarities, of which I am not aware, as I think it does with the ‘radical interdisciplinarity’ suggested by Katha. The general upshot is therefore not to claim the primacy of transdisciplinarity, but simply to draw attention to the methodological strategies implicit in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, which could be of assistance in formulating our own research agenda.



Alliez, É. (2011) Rhizome (With no return), Radical Philosophy, 167, pp. 36-42.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Hark, S. (2007) Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity, Graduate Journal of Social Science, 4(2), pp. 11-33.

Nowotny, H., Scott, P., Gibbons, M. (2003) Introduction: ‘Mode 2’ Revisited: The New Production of Knowledge, Minerva, 41(3), pp. 179-194.

Sandford, S. (2011) Sex: A transdisciplinary concept, Radical Philosophy, 165, pp. 23-30.

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