“Knowledge-weaving”: Befriending transdisciplinarity under the urgencies of global academic restructuring

Katie King, Women’s Studies, University of Maryland, College Park

In an interview published last year, Susan Leigh Star contemplated knowledge-weaving as among those lively methodologies and science studies feminists come to share around and about. Such weaving, she pointed out, works in genres, in “threads and patterns that are both distinct and enmeshed.” Produced by “both artisanal skill and issues of domestic work/hobbies vs. art and its markets and makings,” knowledge-weaving is “both individual and collective, solitary and group-oriented,” and, evolving and critical, keeps transformatively remaking meanings. (Star in Bauchspies 2009: 336).

So, with such knowledge-weaving in mind, how could we explore the four conference themes – device, digital data, visuality, and transformative practice – in order to consider how we might befriend transdisciplinary movements among knowledge worlds we find ourselves obliged to traverse in terms not of our own making?

Under current conditions of academic restructuring, the so-called interdisciplinary can only too easily be used to justify, say, financial decisions to consolidate units and resources, and especially, end up promoting a kind of easily assessed instrumental practicality, as if easy assessment was the factor that characterized good interdisciplinary methodology. Conversely, perhaps simultaneously, under academic capitalism we also may see and indeed feel intensively how disciplinary chauvinisms are made urgent, personal and compensatory, when communities of practice are required to compete for these resources and justify themselves in terms of assessment that also simplify and instrumentalize collective projects. My own department and college are pressured right now in these very ways. Perhaps yours are as well.

On the one hand, strengthening disciplinary identity is an easy-to-communicate way to offer authority, while on the other, working in collective multi-disciplinary projects understood as problem solving tasks is more easily instrumentalized with clear outcomes when assessment is demanded. Quantitative assessment is especially persuasive for establishing and maintaining authority in an environment in which many knowledge worlds compete, in which productivity and authority are measures for advancement, status or just getting a job done. The empirical, the data-driven, the concrete, and the local are all more manageable, more easily broken up into tasks and held accountable to a very particular set of folks and their properly urgent ethics. Yet diverging knowledge worlds keep making such management problematic, uneven, partial, at times virtually impossible.

“Devices” keep being things, that is to say, difficult to stabilize outcomes of dispute, jumpy materializations of practices, lively, transforming and dissimilar agencies rather than elegantly inert guarantors of epistemological simplicity. The so-called “digital” keeps morphing, no longer just one sort of code among several, becoming, sometimes, a fungible actor that valorizes some data, literally “funds” it, in new disciplinizations. “Visuality” attempts to reorder a contemporary sensorium, and keeps coming up against synesthesias that defy both the stability of devices in favor of their infrastructures, and the economies of scale and detail that appear to anchor either the disciplinary or the interdisciplinary. And “practice” or “transformation” become defaults, even when inspirational, even when obligatory, even when undecidable.

Being inside and moved around literally by the very material and conceptual structures you are analyzing and writing about is a kind of self-consciousness only partially available for explicit, or direct discussion. Under global academic restructuring we are obliged to network among all these lively agencies. In medias res, in the middle of things, as these things themselves resolve or not, as we look to see things as they exist for others, in different degrees of resolution, of grain of detail.

And attention to any particular grain of detail provokes response and affect. And that matters. In the midst of such cognitive overload, we end up always experimenting with strategies for working with it, rather than denying it. Transdisciplinary work befriends and experiences a range of academic and other genres of writing, entailment and analysis, together with their consequent and diverging values. Having to address many actively diverging audiences simultaneously and having to author knowledges as merely one of multiple agencies with very limited control are both circumstances that become more and more intrusive for various communities of practice.

Knowledge-weavings then, practice being just frustratingly alien enough to actually be nodes in trial and error learning, yet satisfying and successful enough to keep weavers hooked on their own sensations of shifting cognition and intensities of affect, however plain or subtle, hooked on sensations of their own possible agencies in groupings beyond individual control.