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May 21, 2013

Power and the text: Axioms of thought in the contemporary university

Writing about web page

A few weeks ago now we had a film event in which we watched and then discussed Meek's Cutoff(Kelly Reichardt, 2010). It was a really interesting session with a great, interdisciplinary set of participants contributing!

One of the main aims was to see how it would work to discuss a film text with an interdisciplinary group of people - to see whether we would agree on methodologies and so on, or whether there would be big differences or even disagreements.

I chose Meek's Cutoffbecause from a Film Studies perspective, it's a really interestingly put-together film that, I would argue, incorporates feminine modes of vision into its very construction of shots and sequences. It's about a small group of families on the Oregon Trail in 1845 who get increasingly lost and desperate in their desert crossing. It's been called a 'feminist western' because it's told largely from the point of view of the wives/mothers in the group, rather than the men. It therefore raises interesting questions about how cinematic traditions of representation may be subtly coded as masculine.

What I found was that there was actually a great deal of overlap in terms of the language, theories and concepts used by various Humanities and Social Science disciplines to discuss texts. The Film Studies participants had perhaps a more nuanced understanding of the physical construction of the film and the artistic and industrial decisions that went into making it, but then that's their job! We all shared a common language in which to talk about cinema as encoding power relations in terms of both narrative and visual elements.

I have accordingly added 'Power and the text' as a sub-theme within the Power theme of the Gendered Knowledges project website - a strand of thought that is broadly shared across many disciplines.

One thing we should pay more attention to, I think, about interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality Studies is that most of the Humanities and Social Sciences since the 1970s have broadly shared a common set of theoretical assumptions, particularly as regards power and the text. Interdisciplinarity in these areas seems to be inclined towards the theory behind these assumptions - especially Foucault and Butler these days, but it used to be more Freud. (When exactly did this shift occur and why?) And Marx has been a constant through many decades, having survived this shift intact.

So although we may disagree on particular issues, it seems easy to find common ground when we talk about high-level issues. This is nice and makes for some great interdisciplinary events, but it could also be a negative thing in some ways. At the highest level, there's not that much variety in terms of ideological assumptions and theories about the goals of academic study. I've recently been reading Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed(which merits a whole post in its own right, to follow!), and it's a bit astounding how he takes as axiomatic that the only possible end of any truly rational enquiry is to become a Marxist and fight oppression. A similar assumption, I would argue, underpins the structures of academia: given the way peer review, hiring/promotion, PhD recruitment and conferral, even undergraduate exam and essay marking all work, genuine alternatives and dissenting voices that may challenge these assumptions are virtually nonexistent within the academy.

Meanwhile as we continue to pursue these admirably radical intellectual goals, we allow our universities to be taken over, virtually uncontested, by a neoliberalist managerial class with aims that are actually quite hostile to this enormous body of radical intellectual work. And as Sabine Hark points out, they very often make inroads using precisely the language of interdisciplinarity, which seems able to stretch to mean both very radical things and deeply conservative, neoliberal things simultaneously.

Hey guys, maybe we should be thinking more about how to actually live these principles in our working lives? Just sayin'.

Anyway, the Gendered Knowledges project is actually a great example of the uncomfortable ways that neoliberal and radical issues often cohabit within university space. It is, of course, a project funded by the neoliberal management of Warwick, with concrete aims like setting up an interdisciplinary (there's that word!) MA module and running a series of events that will enrich the intellectual life of Warwick and so on. Yet on an intellectual level, here we are considering radical pedagogies that actually challenge the deepest structures of the neoliberal university, wondering how we can possibly teach students to genuinely think for themselves while still subjecting them to traditional assessment and thus satisfying the bureaucratic needs of the university. Like so many academics, we are radical in our thought, buying into this shared body of radical theory that is axiomatic within the Humanities and Social Sciences, yet we stop short of any genuine challenge to the system.

Am I the only one who thinks that this situation has become rather stagnant and hollow?

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.

April 19, 2013

Experiential Learning for Academic Credit

The main theme that I am working on is based on an idea I had that students should be able to integrate their feminist activism with their academic learning. On top of that idea and based on my experiences of working part time at the Career Service I thought about the ways in which students might be able to get practical experiences in women centred or feminist organizations and again integrate them into their academic learning. Many universities offer placements to undergraduates through an intercalculated year but making it an integral part of an MA offering is less usual.

In starting to do research into the different models of experiential learning for academic credit I came across practices in the USA that were embedded into the secondary education system by the Bush administration in the 1990s. Wikipedia provides a pretty good overview of the different forms in which experiential learning can take, specifically community based learning (CBL) . I have also read an interesting paper that provides a typology of the different types of experiential learning and thinks about their usefulness for those leading Sociology courses see here Experiential Learning in Sociology

It seems to me that having something like CBL or other forms of experiential learning embedded in our module would be a fantastic opportunity for those interested in Gender, feminism and sexualities because of the lived nature of these areas of study.

What do you think?


April 03, 2013

Academic privilege, or, a brief exercise in dispossession

Yesterday was the day my postgraduate student status expired - I'm now officially no longer a student! Which thus far, I must say, has been something of an exercise in dispossession. Suddenly my card expired and I now can't get into any buildings at Warwick, including the Library to access information or check out books. I went to go and sort it out with HR (since I'm still an employee of the university, after all), and I couldn't even get into the building in which HR is housed. Also, once I did get in, the HR receptionist was rather rude and condescending, her tone of voice implying that I'm somehow less than a full member of this little micro-society of the university, or that my struggle to get a working card was somhow less-than-legit.

So I know that this is a kind of uber-privileged example of dispossession and that many, many people have far worse problems (not least because of the Government's new welfare policies that started on Monday). But still, it has got me thinking about the notion of access, and how it feels not to have it. There's nothing like suddenly losing a privilege to make that privilege visible.

Maybe as part of a module on Power (which is my theme in the Gendered Knowledges project), we should consider doing some kind of experiment that makes each student's individual privileges visible by temporarily taking some of them away.

Clearly there are many privileges surrounding gender (and race, and sexuality, and various other markers of difference). Here's a great blog post that unpacks some of the privileges that many men take for granted. (This is itself a response to Peggy Macintosh's well-known list of white privileges.)

Perhaps we need to generate a similar list of privileges we have as academics. This is not trivial: we have access to all kinds of information and knowledge that others lack, and moreover academia is systematically rigged to keep 'others' out. I'll start:

1. We get to be called experts/authorities in our field. Quoting our written or verbal statements is considered by many (including students, news outlets and other academics) to be sufficient proof of a given fact or idea.

2. We have free access to authoritative information on an infinite variety of topics and issues.

3. Writings about power, access and privilege are often written/spoken in a language that only we are trained to understand.

4. We decide who is worthy of further access to privileges through the education we provide.

5. And indeed we set the standards by which our students (as well as those who have failed to become our students) often judge their own worth as individuals.

6. We (or at least those who are senior to myself) decide who is worthy of access to the privileges of academia itself - through hiring, peer reviewing, thesis examinations, etc.

7. We decide which texts (not just academic texts but also popular texts, films, images etc) are important and consequently which are canonised.

I'm sure there are many others - please list in the comments if you have some to add!

Moreover, each academic discipline is a microcosm of these privileges. Even within academic communities, certain individuals are endowed with the privilege to define and delineate fields of study, and to exclude others from the field based on the criteria they set. The thesis examination is an excellent example of this: in order to call myself a Film Studies scholar, I had to show that I had spent 3+ years reading and understanding the canonical texts of Film Studies - and that I had bought into them (more or less).

My point is that we as a research group need to be thinking about this if we want to be interdisciplinary. Does being interdisciplinary involve letting go of this 'buying into' a particular system of enquiry?

I can see that this is very, very hard to do in any serious way. To take an obvious example, Cath and Sam (the leaders of the project) are both in Sociology. Although they are working very hard and very sincerely to make this an interdisciplinary project, they have also already set the terms of our debates and goals. Indeed they hired the rest of us according to the standards by which they judge quality, which are, naturally, informed by their training as sociologists (not to mention as academics).

Judgments of value are clearly functionally unavoidable here. How would anyone hire anyone without them? And indeed, to take another issue that is clearly at stake here, how could we motivate student work without such a hierarchical value system? We are clearly all implicated in these hierarchies, yet I still want to ask: might it be possible to avoid or subvert them without throwing up one's hands and leaving the university completely? Is self-awareness a useful tool here or is it ultimately a pointless exercise? How might we teach our students about these issues while still remaining a 'legitimate' university course?

Also, is there any way of countering the canonisation issue? We have been talking about how white/middle-class women's issues often seem to set the agenda of feminism. How do we make feminism and gender studies more open to all viewpoints and perspectives?

There are clearly no simple answers here, but I at the very least think these are goals we need to be addressing as we design our course(s).

March 26, 2013

Inter– or trans–disciplinary: the perils of definitions (and diagrams)

Recently, I started drawing diagrams to visualise my thoughts. This has been particularly useful for mapping the intersection between fields or schools of thought as it allows precise delineations of the subject under consideration. Like mind maps, they help to order, elucidate and explain. Or so I thought when I started.

My first reaction to the difficulty in understanding the specificities of inter- and trans-disciplinary (as discussed in Sabine Hark’s article Magical Sign) was to render them in visual form. I hoped this would allow insight into the subject, however in the end it has raised more questions than it yield answers.

During the discussion itself I drew a preliminary diagram which looked like a smiling face:

Diagram 1

I strove to illustrate that whilst the basis of inter-disciplinary study assumes the communication between distinct fields (the arrows), trans-disciplinary attempts to erase the boundaries between them (depicted as the green oval which envelops them).

However, this diagram would assume that the fields are entirely distinct from one another. This is not the case. One of the issues raised at the reading group was the notion that advocating the "purity" of a particular discipline functions as a legitimising strategy. To be recognised it needs to be distinguished from others (a necessary prerequisite for its right to exist as a discipline). There are subjects which would be considered "pure": mathematics for example would be a science, no question. Yet some disciplines, whilst recognised "in their own right", are nevertheless seen to draw on, or bridge between, different fields. Gender Studies is a prime example. Looking back at my diagram, where exactly would I place gender studies? Would it go in social sciences? Humanities? Or maybe on one of the arrows?

What we are dealing with, it seems, are "degrees of purity". To accommodate this I’ve drawn another diagram.

Diagram 2

Some subjects would lie at the edges of the circles, some closer to the centre, and by extension closer to the blurred space of the inter-disciplinary. Yet, if trans-disciplinary is once again the green circle which envelops them, than what is the blurry bit in the middle where all the circles intersect? Wouldn't that be a more apt delineation of trans-disciplinary? So once again I drew a new diagram.

Diagram 3

The circles are now permeated to show that none of them are "closed sets". What do they open into, however? What is that vast white space which surrounds them? The space of possibility? I honestly don't know.

However, that is not the only problem with diagram 3. I began wondering: why have I only drawn three circles? Where in this diagram would law go? Or engineering? What about applied sciences? Would it go between science and social science? Shouldn't science be re-labelled as "natural science"? The questions just kept pouring in, leading me to "update" the previous diagram. The problem of the white space remained.

Diagram 4

This left another pressing question. Whilst the intersections between social sciences and humanities and social science and science are easily visualised, what of the intersection between humanities and sciences? Does it really exist? What would it look like?

Pondering this, I was led to a book I have read recently: José van Dijck's Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. In her work, van Dijck attempts to account for the ways in which memory changes in relation to technological advancement. Her argument is nuanced and she does not, as I may have accidentally suggested, argue that technology changes our memories, but rather it should be seen as a two-way process. New media offer new ways to accommodate the evolution of human perception of the self. Of interest to this discussion is her insight into neuroscience as an attempt to explain the workings of memory. As an example, she argues that recent research has led to understanding memory not as a storage space, where remembering means simply calling forth something which has been put away in our brains (as previously envisioned), but rather, every time we remember we conjure the past anew, within the parameters of the present. Thus, new technologies offering not only storage but also the possibility of altering our memory objects ("doctoring" photographs for example) result in a more flexible approach to dealing with memory. In her research she not only draws on neurobiological research, but also argues that science could greatly benefit from studies which concern themselves with the representation of memory. The ways we strive to visualise our relation with the past in the arts could provide crucial insights into our brains, as well as bridge new pathways for exploration in which science, social science and humanities would go side by side.

Could this be the trans-disciplinarity that we are aiming for? But wouldn't it still fall into one of the circles, even if simply for the purpose of shelving in the library? After all, in order to bridge, we do need two separate entities to exist in the first place.


van Dijick, José, Mediated Memories in the Digital Age (Stanford University Press, 2007)

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

March 16, 2013

Reading group – first session

An interdisciplinary reading group on interdisciplinarity – challenges and insights
Interdisciplinarity is an immensely popular yet contested term. The first session of our reading group brought together students and researchers from a range of departments to explore this concept in theory and practice. Passages from Sabine Hark’s article Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity served as a starting point for our discussion.

Sabine Hark is professor at the Center for Interdisciplinary Women’s and Gender Studies (ZIFG) at the Technical University Berlin. Her article Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity from 2007 discusses some of the theoretical, methodological, and institutional problems that arise from the inconsistent claiming and positioning of the term.

Borrowing from feminist literary scholar Sneja Gunew (2002: 47-65), Hark describes research in the fields of Women’s and Gender Studies as ‘a continuing experiment in interdisciplinarity’ (Hark 2007: 24). While Hark acknowledges that Women’s Studies combines topics, ideas and methods from a range of fields within and beyond the academy, she criticises that scholars in this and in many other fields tend to take interdisciplinarity for granted. According to Hark, interdisciplinarity in Women’s Studies is ‘as much a seriously underthought critical, pedagogical and institutional concept as everywhere else in the academic universe’ (ibid.: 23).

A number of recent publications and research projects on interdisciplinarity indicate that interdisciplinarity is by no means underthought or taken for granted. Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL), the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies (CIM), and the Gendered Knowledges project constitute only three examples of initiatives at the University of Warwick that explore and critically examine interdisciplinary in theory and practice.

As explained on the website, the Gendered Knowledges project seeks to ‘explore radical interdisciplinary pedagogies in relation to Gender and Sexuality’. What does that mean? Following Stanley Fish, radical interdisciplinarity ‘begins with the assumption that the political is always and already inside those precincts [i.e. academic disciplines] and that the line separating them from the arena of social agitation is itself politically drawn and must be erased if action within the academy is to be continuous with the larger struggle against exploitation and oppression’ (Fish 1991). Radical interdisciplinarity, in other words, does not only combine different academic disciplines, it also relates to broader social and political questions and struggles.

We have only begun to embark on this radical interdisciplinary project. The first session of our reading illustrated some of the challenges and insights that come with interdisciplinary discussions of interdisciplinarity within the academy. Although the participants shared a common interest in interdisciplinary topics and methods, they did not share a theoretical and methodological framework to discuss these issues. Scholars, ideas and methods that were familiar to some participants were new to others. The participants handled these challenges surprisingly well. They introduced each other to thinkers and ideas, drew diagrams to illustrate concepts and discussed the potentials and limitations of interdisciplinary approaches in relation to their own work.

Have our discussions led to a shared definition of and position on interdisciplinarity? Certainly not! Yet it became apparent that conceptualisations and uses of interdisciplinarity vary between and within disciplines and that these differences can be productive. Against the background of this discussion, it can hardly come as a surprise that we came to different conclusions. Some of us defended the concept of interdisciplinarity and argued that it remains an immensely productive tool for research on gender and sexuality. Others called for post-disciplinary theoretical frameworks that aim to overcome academic disciplines as such, or endorsed transdisciplinary approaches.

Like interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity has become a buzzword in Gender Studies. According to the feminist theorist and physicist Karen Barad, a transdisciplinary approach ‘remains rigorously attentive to important details of specialized arguments within a given field, in an effort to foster constructive engagements across (and reworking of) interdisciplinary boundaries’ (2007: 25). I believe that there are interesting theoretical and political similarities between Barad’s call for transdisciplinarity and Fish’s argument for a radical interdisciplinarity, but I hope we can explore these and other ideas in the next session of our interdisciplinary reading group on interdisciplinarity.


Barad, Karen (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke UP.

Fish, Stanley. Being Interdisciplinary Is So Very Hard to Do, in Issues in Integrative Studies 9 (1991), 97-125.

Gunew, Sneja (2002) ‘Feminist Cultural Literacy: Translating Differences, Cannibal
Options’, in Wiegman, Robyn (ed.), Women’s Studies on its Own,
Durham/London: Duke UP, 47-65.

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

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