What I’m coming to understand is the relationship between art, technology and design as one in which the different idioms of very distinct and displinary practices can be brought together..or not. My insights are not as thorough as yours and more driven by intuition and insight through process and projects. My own descriptions of these experiences are that “interdisciplinary” means multiple disciplines engaged in a pile-up, a knot of jumbled ideas and perspectives. Lots of different languages and vocabularies and principles, and especially ways of “completing things” — processes — that feels quite a bit like a bunch of different driving habits converging on a busy freeway.

I prefer the term “undisciplinary” because it wants nothing to do with playing the usual games, according to the usual logics (doing things to serve a specific mode of capital accumulation and capital production — whether knowledge-as-property, culture-as-commodity, objects or other materializations that can be sold for profit.) It’s not “interdisciplinary” — which I bought into once. Neither is it transdisciplinary, which I admittedly don’t know that much about, but suspect it’s a bit of an over-theorized alternative to “interdisciplinary”

“Undisciplinarity” is as much a way of doing work as it is a departure from ways of doing work, even what “counts” as work. It is a work habit and approach to creating and circulating culture that can go its own way, without worrying about working outside of what histories-of-disciplines say is “proper” work. It’s “undisciplined” and not willing or even able to operate within the realm of consumer capitalism and capital accumulation. You can’t be wrong — or have old-timers tell you how to do what you want to do. This is a good thing, it means new knowledge is created rather than incremental contributions to a body of existing knowledge. It means new ways of working, new practices, new unexpected processes and projects come to be, almost by definition. It’s not for everyone. Many if not most people need to be told how to do what they do. They need discipline and boundaries and steps and rules. They need to know what’s good, and what’s bad. They need to know what the boundaries are and where the limits of the discipline lie. And this makes sure that the creation of specific, sensible knowledge is created.

Why is this important? Why “undisciplinarity”? Because we need more playful and habitable worlds that the old forms of knowledge production are ill-equipped to produce. It’s an epistemological shift, not (only) new ways of fixing the problems the old disciplinary and interdisciplinary practices created in the first place. If these old practices are lap dogs to consumer capitalism how quickly can they learn the desperately needed new tricks to fix the crisis-level challenges the world faces?

One thought on “Undisciplinarity.”

  1. Previous models of university-based research have amplified the tendency for knowledge to pile up in vertically specialised ‘silos’. This structure can be held responsible for perpetuating divisions between domains that isolate knowledge from the contexts in which it is can be used. The existing models of academic structures are the ‘sacred cows’ of contemporary education. Unfortunately (for the most part) they also operate as artificial barriers to the next generation of art-design-technology practitioners. Neil Gershenfeld (2005) points out that ‘making’ has been considered an ‘illiberal art’ since the Renaissance. He points out that industrial mechanization has meant that skilled workers that once used to do many things now do only one and that thinking about how to make things became the business of specialists. A ‘transdisciplinary’ approach recognises the boundaries of the problem being addressed, not the artificial boundaries of disciplines.

    In ‘Notes Toward a Social Epistemology of Transdisciplinarity’, Klein (1994) informs us that several theorists are credited with coining the term ‘transdisciplinary’ (e.g. Jean Piaget and Andre Lichnerowicz). However, Erich Jantsch (1972) is most widely associated with the idea. Klein points to increasing globalization of economic activities, information technologies and networks as being symptoms of Postmodernism. She indicates that transdisciplinary research requires the development of a common conceptual framework and a common vocabulary among contributors. However, she warns against the creation of self-imposed borders or the promotion of comprehensive worldviews which she states risk becoming monolithic projects or closed systems. There are obviously a plethora of approaches to research that claim to be across, beyond, and over disciplinary boundaries. Mansilla and Gardner (2003) have identified several challenges to interdisciplinary work. They point out that individual disciplines often adhere to contradictory standards of validation to those of interdisciplinary work that draws upon them. Their research indicates that in the case of new areas of study with no existing precedents that developing validation criteria is part of the investigation process itself. So we end up spending more time trying to justify what we do than actually doing it. Wendy Russell of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Wollongong states:

    “Because Universities are structured around disciplines, the distribution of funds and resources, and the administration of both research and teaching tend to operate within a disciplinary framework. There are obvious disadvantages for transdisciplinary research. However, attempts to institutionalise transdisciplinarity may simply create new disciplines, without the flexibility which is arguably essential for transdisciplinary research, especially in being responsive to new problems. For transdisciplinarity to thrive within the disciplinary structure of the University, contingency must be made for it.”

    Arias and Fischer (Arias and Fischer, 2000) state that when a domain reaches the point where the knowledge necessary for professional practice cannot be acquired in a decade, specialization will increase, teamwork becomes a necessity, and practitioners will make increasing use of distributed cognition. This proposes that human knowledge and cognition are not confined to the individual but are rather distributed by placing memories, facts, or knowledge in the environment (e.g., bound up in other people or embedded in media). Stephen Heppell (2006) discussed his vision of learning in the year 2016. He specifically points at education needing to be ‘project-based’ rather than ‘discipline-based’. Educators (like myself) need to address the following questions: What theories underpin this practice? What are the fundamental skills of a foundation course in art-design-technology? How do we teach students to develop a critical, technological awareness? What is an appropriate body of knowledge? Should we be giving the illusion that we can fit it into four years?

    Globalization, use of information technologies and networks has led to increasing de-differentiation and hybridization. These tendencies are typical of the contemporary period. In this sense a hybrid, synthetic or pluralist approach is indicative of an expanded cultural field rather than an assault on disciplinary conventions. Basically, all bets are off. There is no teaching any more, only learning. I like your justification of the term “undisciplinary”. It suggests that the work done in this area can perform as a means of coordination and alignment across disciplines and as a means of translation between them. It can also act as a reflexive space in which to understand, critique and evolve the dominant discourses and nature of practice in it’s parent disciplines.

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