—Who wants to know?
—I want to know.
—What do you want to know?
—I don’t know!
At some point last year I proposed within my institution, Goldsmiths, University of London, that we develop a free academy adjacent to our institution and call it “Goldsmiths Free.” The reactions to this proposal, when not amused smirks at the apparently adolescent nature of the proposal, were largely either puzzled—“What would we get out of it? Why would we want to do it?”—or horrified—“How would it finance itself?” No one asked what might be taught or discussed within it and how that might differ from the intellectual work that is done within our conventional fee-charging, degree-giving, research-driven institution. And that of course was the point, that it would be different, not just in terms of redefining the point of entry into the structure (free of fees and previous qualifications) or the modus operandi of the work (not degree-based, unexamined, not subject to the state’s mechanisms of monitoring and assessment), but also that the actual knowledge would be differently situated within it. And that is what I want to think about here, about the difference in the knowledge itself, its nature, its status, and its affect.
The kind of knowledge that interested me in this proposal to the university was one that was not framed by disciplinary and thematic orders, a knowledge that would instead be presented in relation to an urgent issue, and not an issue as defined by knowledge conventions, but by the pressures and struggles of contemporaneity. When knowledge is unframed, it is less grounded genealogically and can navigate forwards rather than backwards. This kind of “unframed” knowledge obviously had a great deal to do with what I had acquired during my experiences in the art world, largely a set of permissions with regard to knowledge and a recognition of its performative faculties—that knowledge doesrather than is. But the permissions I encountered in the art world came with their own set of limitations, a tendency to reduce the complex operations of speculation to either illustration or to a genre that would visually exemplify “study” or “research.” Could there be, I wondered, another mode in which knowledge might be set free without having to perform such generic mannerisms, without becoming an aesthetic trope in the hands of curators hungry for the latest “turn”?
Heads will surely be shaken! The notion of “free” is currently so degraded in terms of the free market, the dubious proposals of the new “free” economy of the internet, and the historically false promises of individual freedom, that it may be difficult to see what it might have to offer beyond all these hollow slogans. Nevertheless, the possibility of producing some interrogative proximity between “knowledge” and “free” seems both unavoidable and irresistible, particularly in view of the present struggles over the structures of education in Europe.
The actual drive towards knowledge and therefore towards some form of expansion and transformation seems far more important than simply a discussion of the categories it operates within. In order to attempt such a transition I need to think about several relevant questions:
1. First and foremost, what is knowledge when it is “free”?
2. Whether there are sites, such as the spaces of art, in which knowledge might be more “free” than in others?
3. What are the institutional implications of housing knowledge that is “free”?
4. What are the economies of “free” that might prove an alternative to the market- and outcome-based and comparison-driven economies of institutionally structured knowledge at present?
Evidently, en route I need to think about the struggles over education, its alternative sitings, the types of emergent economies that might have some purchase on its rethinking, and, finally, how “education” might be perceived as an alternative organizational mode, not of information, of formal knowledges and their concomitant marketing, but as other forms of coming together not predetermined by outcomes but by directions. Here I have in mind some process of “knowledge singularization,” which I will discuss further below.
Obviously it is not the romance of liberation that I have in mind here in relation to “free.” Knowledge cannot be “liberated,” it is endlessly embedded in long lines of transformations that link in inexplicable ways to produce new conjunctions. Nor do I have in mind the romance of “avant-garde” knowledge, with its oppositional modes of “innovation” as departure and breach. Nor am I particularly interested in what has been termed “interdisciplinarity,” which, with its intimations of movement and “sharing” between disciplines, de facto leaves intact those membranes of division and logics of separation and containment. Nor, finally, and I say this with some qualification, is my main aim here to undo the disciplinary and professional categories that have divided and isolated bodies of knowledge from one another in order to promote a heterogeneous field populated by “bodies” of knowledge akin to the marketing strategies that ensure choice and multiplicity and dignify the practices of epistemological segregation by producing endless new subcategories for inherited bodies of named and contained knowledge.
There is a vexed relation between freedom, individuality, and sovereignty that has a particular relevance for the arena being discussed here, as knowledge and education have a foothold both in processes of individuation and in processes of socialization. Hannah Arendt expressed this succinctly when she warned that
Politically, this identification of freedom with sovereignty is perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous consequence of the philosophical equation of freedom and free will. For it leads either to a denial of human freedom—namely, if it is realized that whatever men may be, they are never sovereign—or to the insight that the freedom of one man, or a group, or a body politic, can only be purchased at the price of the freedom, i.e. the sovereignty, of all others. Within the conceptual framework of traditional philosophy, it is indeed very difficult to understand how freedom and non-sovereignty can exist together or, to put it another way, how freedom could have been given to men under the conditions of non-sovereignty.1
And in the final analysis it is my interest to get around both concepts, freedom and sovereignty, through the operations of “singularization.” Perhaps it is knowledge de-individuated, de-radicalized in the conventional sense of the radical as breach, and yet operating within the circuits of singularity—of “the new relational mode of the subject”—that is preoccupying me in this instance.
And so, the task at hand seems to me to be not one of liberation from confinement, but rather one of undoing the very possibilities of containment.
While an unbounded circulation of capital, goods, information, hegemonic alliances, populist fears, newly globalized uniform standards of excellence, and so forth, are some of the hallmarks of the late neoliberal phase of capitalism, we nevertheless can not simply equate every form of the unbounded and judge them all as equally insidious. “Free” in relation to knowledge, it seems to me, has its power less in its expansion than in an ultimately centripetal movement, less in a process of penetrating and colonizing everywhere and everything in the relentless mode of capital, than in reaching unexpected entities and then drawing them back, mapping them onto the field of perception.
Crowded streets of Vienna—60,000 school students strike on April 24, 2009.
In spring and autumn of 2009 a series of prolonged strikes erupted across Austria and Germany, the two European countries whose indigenous education systems have been hardest hit by the reorganization of the Bologna Accord; smaller strikes also took place in France, Italy, and Belgium.2 At the center of the students’ protests were the massive cuts in education budgets across the board and the revision of state budgets within the current economic climate, which made youth and the working class bear the burden of support for failing financial institutions.
The strikes were unified by common stands on three issues:
1. against fees for higher education
2. against the increasing limitation of access to selection in higher education
3. for re-democratization of the universities and re-inclusion of students in decision-making processes
Not only were these the largest and most organized strikes to have been held by school and university students since the 1980s, but they also included teachers, whose pay had been reduced and whose working hours had been extended, which, after considerable pressure from below, eventually moved the trade unions to take a position.
The concerns here were largely structural and procedural, and considering all that is at stake in these reorganizations of the education system, it is difficult to know what to privilege in our concern: the reformulation of institutions into regimented factories for packaged knowledge that can easily be placed within the marketplace; the processes of knowledge acquisition that are reduced to the management of formulaic outcomes that are comparable across cultures and contexts; “training” replacing “speculating”; the dictation of such shifts from above and without any substantive consultation or debate. All of these are significant steps away from criticality in spaces of education and towards the goal that all knowledge have immediate, transparent, predictable, and pragmatic application.
The long, substantive lines that connect these struggles to their predecessors over the past forty years or so, and which constitute “education” as both an ongoing political platform and the heart of many radical artistic practices, are extremely well articulated in a conversation between Marion von Osten and Eva Egermann, in which von Osten says of her projects such as “reformpause”:
Firstly, I tried to create a space to pause, to hold on for a moment, to take a breath and to think—to think about what kinds of change might be possible; about how and what we might wish to learn; and why that which we wished to learn might be needed. I guess, in this way, both Manoa Free University and “reformpause” shared similar goals—not simply to critique the ongoing educational reforms and thereby legitimize established structures, but rather to actively engage in thinking about alternate concepts and possible change.
Secondly, there is a long history of student struggles and the question arises as to whether or not these are still relevant today and, if they are, how and why? The recent student struggles did not simply originate with the Bologna Declaration. The genealogy of various school and university protests and struggles over the past forty years demonstrates that we live in an era of educational reforms which, since the 1960s, have led to the construction of a new political subjectivity, the “knowledge worker.” This is not just a phenomenon of the new millennium; furthermore, many artistic practices from the 1960s and 1970s relate to this re-ordering of knowledge within Western societies. This is one of the many reasons why we so readily relate to these practices, as exemplified by conceptualism and the various ways in which conceptual artists engaged with contemporary changes in the concepts of information and communication.3
All of this identifies hugely problematic and very urgent issues, but we cannot lose sight of the status of actual knowledge formations within these. When knowledge is not geared towards “production,” it has the possibility of posing questions that combine the known and the imagined, the analytical and the experiential, and which keep stretching the terrain of knowledge so that it is always just beyond the border of what can be conceptualized.
These are questions in which the conditions of knowledge are always internal to the concepts it is entertaining, not as a context but as a limit to be tested. The entire critical epistemology developed by Foucault and by Derrida rested on questions that always contain a perception of their own impossibility, a consciousness of thinking as a process of unthinking something that is fully aware of its own status. The structural, the techniques, and the apparatuses, could never be separated from the critical interrogation of concepts. As Giorgio Agamben says of Foucault’s concept of the apparatus:
The proximity of this term to the theological dispositio, as well as to Foucault’s apparatuses, is evident. What is common to all these terms is that they refer back to this oikonomia, that is, to a set of practices, bodies of knowledge, measures, and institutions that aim to manage, govern, control, and orient—in a way that purports to be useful—the behaviors, gestures, and thoughts of human beings.4
So the struggle facing education is precisely that of separating thought from its structures, a struggle constantly informed by tensions between thought management and subjectification—the frictions by which we turn ourselves into subjects. As Foucault argued, this is the difference between the production of subjects in “power/knowledge” and those processes of self-formation in which the person is active. It would seem then that the struggle in education arises from tensions between conscious inscription into processes of self-formation and what Foucault, speaking of his concerns with scientific classification, articulated as the subsequent and necessary “insurrection of subjugated knowledges,” in which constant new voices appear claiming themselves not as “identities,” but as eventswithin knowledge.5 The argument that Isabelle Stengers makes about her own political formation has convinced me that this is a productive direction to follow in trying to map out knowledge as struggle:
My own intellectual and political life has been marked by what I learned from the appearance of drugs users’ groups claiming that they were “citizens like everyone else,” and fighting against laws that were officially meant to “protect” them. The efficacy of this new collective voice, relegating to the past what had been the authorized, consensual expertise legitimating the “war on drugs,” convinced me that such events were “political events” par excellence, producing—as, I discovered afterwards, Dewey had already emphasized—both new political struggle and new important knowledge. I even proposed that what we call democracy could be evaluated by its relation to those disrupting collective productions. A “true” democracy would demand the acceptance of the ongoing challenge of such disruptions—would not only accept them but also acknowledge those events as something it depended upon.6
Knowledge as disruption, knowledge as counter-subjugation, knowledge as constant exhortation to its own, often uncomfortable implications, are at the heart of “struggle.” The battle over education as we are experiencing it now does not find its origin in the desire to suppress these but rather in efforts to regulate them so that they work in tandem with the economies of cognitive capitalism.
The economies of the world of knowledge have shifted quite dramatically over the past ten to fifteen years. What had been a fairly simple subsidy model, with states covering the basic expenses of teaching, subsidizing home schooling on a per capita basis (along with private entities incorporated in “not -for-profit” structures); research councils and foundations covering the support of research in the humanities and pure sciences; and industry supporting applied research, has changed quite dramatically, as have the traditional outlets for such knowledge: scholarly journals and books, exhibitions, science-based industry, the military, and public services such as agriculture and food production. Knowledge, at present, is not only enjoined to be “transferable” (to move easily between paradigms so that its potential impact will be transparent from the outset) and to invent new and ever expanding outlets for itself, it must also contend with the prevalent belief that it should be obliged not only to seek out alternative sources of funding but actually to produce these. By producing the need for a particular type of knowledge one is also setting up the means of its excavation or invention—this is therefore a “need-based” culture of knowledge that produces the support and the market through itself.
So, when I speak of a “free” academy, the question has to be posed: if it is to meet all the above requirements, namely, that it not be fee-charging, not produce applied research, not function within given fields of expertise, and not consider itself in terms of applied “outcomes,” how would it be funded?
In terms of the internet, the economic model of “free” that has emerged over the past decade initially seemed to be an intensification or a contemporary perpetuation of what had been called by economists, the “cross-subsidy” model: you’d get one thing free if you bought another, or you’d get a product free only if you paid for a service. This primary model was then expanded by the possibilities of ever increasing access to the internet, married to constantly lowered costs in the realm of digital technologies.
A second trend is simply that anything that touches digital networks quickly feels the effect of falling costs. And so it goes, too, for everything from banking to gambling. The moment a company’s primary expenses become things based in silicon, free becomes not just an option but also the inevitable destination.7 The cost of actually circulating something within these economies becomes lower and lower, until cost is no longer the primary index of its value.
A third aspect of this emergent economic model is perhaps the one most relevant to this discussion of education. Here the emphasis is on a shift from an exclusive focus on buyers and sellers, producers and consumers, to a tripartite model, in which the third element that enters does so based on its interest in the exchange taking place between the first two elements—an interest to which it contributes financially. In the traditional media model, a publisher provides a product free (or nearly free) to consumers, and advertisers pay to ride along. Radio is “free to air,” and so is much of television. Likewise, newspaper and magazine publishers don’t charge readers anything close to the actual cost of creating, printing, and distributing their products. They’re not selling papers and magazines to readers, they’re selling readers to advertisers. It’s a three-way market.
In a sense, what the Web represents is the extension of the media business model to industries of all sorts. This is not simply the notion that advertising will pay for everything. There are dozens of ways that media companies make money around free content, from selling information about consumers to brand licensing, “value-added” subscriptions, and direct e-commerce. Now an entire ecosystem of Web companies is growing up around the same set of models.8
The question is whether this model of a “free” economy is relevant to my proposal for a free “academy,” given that in an economic model the actual thing in circulation is not subject to much attention except as it appeals to a large public and their ostensible needs. Does this model have any potential for criticality or for an exchange that goes beyond consumption? Novelist, activist, and technology commentator Cory Doctorow claims that
there’s a pretty strong case to be made that “free” has some inherent antipathy to capitalism. That is, information that can be freely reproduced at no marginal cost may not want, need or benefit from markets as a way of organizing them. . . . Indeed, there’s something eerily Marxist in this phenomenon, in that it mirrors Marx’s prediction of capitalism’s ability to create a surplus of capacity that can subsequently be freely shared without market forces’ brutality.9
The appealing part of the economy of “free” for debates about education is its unpredictability in throwing up new spheres of interest and new congregations around them. It has some small potential for shifting the present fixation on the direct relation between fees, training, applied research, organization-as-management, predictable outputs and outcomes, and the immediate consumption of knowledge. This however seems a very narrow notion of criticality as it is limited to the production of a surplus within knowledge and fails to take on the problems of subjectification. And it is the agency of subjectification and its contradictory multiplicity that is at the heart of a preoccupation with knowledge in education, giving it its traction as it were, what Foucault called “the lived multiplicity of positionings.” The internet-based model of “free” does break the direct relation between buyers and sellers, which in the current climate of debates about education, in the context of what Nick Dyer-Witheford has called “Academia Inc.,” is certainly welcome. But it does not expand the trajectory of participation substantively, merely reducing the act of taking part in this economy of use and exchange. The need to think of a “market” for the disruption of paradigms emerges as an exercise in futility and as politically debilitating. To think again with Agamben:
Contemporary societies therefore present themselves as inert bodies going through massive processes of desubjectification without acknowledging any real subjectification. Hence the eclipse of politics, which used to presuppose the existence of subjects and real identities (the workers’ movement, the bourgeoisie, etc.), and the triumph of the oikonomia, that is to say, of a pure activity of government that aims at nothing other than its own replication.10
What then would be the sites of conscious subjectification within this amalgam of education and creative practices?
Over the past two decades we have seen a proliferation of self-organized structures that take the form, with regard to both their investigations and effects, of sites of learning.11These have, more than any other initiative, collapsed the divisions between sites of formal academic education and those of creative practice, display, performance, and activism. In these spaces the previously clear boundaries between universities, academies, museums, galleries, performance spaces, NGOs, and political organizations, lost much of their visibility and efficaciousness. Of course, virtually every European city still has at least one if not several vast “entertainment machine” institutions, traditional museums that see their task as one of inviting the populace to partake of “art” in the most conventional sense and perceive “research” to be largely about themselves (to consist, that is, in the seemingly endless conferences that are held each year on “the changing role of the museum”). These institutions however no longer define the parameters of the field and serve more as indices of consumption, market proximities, and scholastic inertia.
Free International University event program for Documenta 7, June 1982. Pressebüro der Documenta GmbH Klaus Becker, Photo by Dietmar Walberg, Bild-GFDL.
What does knowledge do when it circulates in other sites such as the art world?
As Eva Egermann says:
Of course, the art field was seen as a place in which things could happen, a field of potential, a space of exchange between different models and concepts and, in the sense of learning and unlearning, a field of agency and transfer between different social and political fields and between different positions and subjectivities. In a way, the exhibition functioned as a pretext, a defined place for communication and action that would perhaps establish impulses for further transformations. So, the project functioned as an expanded field of practice from which to organize and network between many different groups, but also to question and experiment with methods of representation and distribution for collective artistic research. We wanted to disseminate our research for collective usage through various means, such as the study circle itself, a wiki, publications and readers and through the model of a free university.12
Former member of the Situationist International poet Peter Laugesen talking at the CFU, 2003.
More than any other sphere, the spaces of contemporary art that open themselves to this kind of alternative activity of learning and knowledge production, and see in it not an occasional indulgence but their actual daily business, have become the sites of some of the most important redefinitions of knowledge that circulate today.
As sites, they have marked the shift from “Ivory Towers” of knowledge to spaces ofinterlocution, with in between a short phase as “laboratories.” As a dialogical practice based on questioning, on agitating the edges of paradigms and on raising external points of view, interlocution takes knowledge back to a Socratic method but invests its operations with acknowledged stakes and interests, rather than being a set of formal proceedings. It gives a performative dimension to the belief argued earlier through the work of Foucault and Derrida, that knowledge always has at its edges the active process of its own limits and its own invalidation.
In setting up knowledge production within the spaces and sites of art, one also takes up a set of permissions that are on offer. Recognizing who is posing questions, where they are speaking from, and from where they know what they know, becomes central rather than, as is typical, marginal qualifications often relegated to footnotes. Permission is equally granted to start in the middle without having to rehearse the telos of an argument; to start from “right here and right now” and embed issues in a variety of contexts, expanding their urgency; to bring to these arguments a host of validations, interventions, asides, and exemplifications that are not recognized as directly related or as sustaining provable knowledge. And, perhaps most importantly, “the curatorial,” not as a profession but as an organizing and assembling impulse, opens up a set of possibilities, mediations perhaps, toformulate subjects that may not be part of an agreed-upon canon of “subjects” worthy of investigation. So knowledge in the art world, through a set of permissions that do not recognize the academic conventions for how one arrives at a subject, can serve both the purposes of reframing and producing subjects in the world.
Finally, I would argue that knowledge in the art world has allowed us to come to terms withpartiality—with the fact that our field of knowing is always partially comprehensible, the problems that populate it are partially visible, and our arguments are only partially inhabiting a recognizable logic. Under no illusions as to its comprehensiveness, knowledge as it is built up within the spaces of art makes relatively modest claims for plotting out the entirety of a problematic, accepting instead that it is entering in the middle and illuminating some limited aspects, all the while making clear its drives in doing so.13
And it is here, in these spaces, that one can ground the earlier argument that the task at hand in thinking through “free” is not one of liberation from confinement, but rather one of undoing the very possibilities of containment. It is necessary to understand that containment is not censure but rather half acknowledges acts of framing and territorializing.
In conjunction with the sites described above it is also direction and circulation that help in opening up “knowledge” to new perceptions of its mobility.
How can we think of “education” as circulations of knowledge and not as the top-down or down-up dynamics in which there is always a given, dominant direction for the movement of knowledge? The direction of the knowledge determines its mode of dissemination: if it is highly elevated and canonized then it is structured in a particular, hierarchical way, involving original texts and commentaries on them; if it is experiential then it takes the form of narrative and description in a more lateral form; and if it is empirical then the production of data categories, vertical and horizontal, would dominate its argument structures even when it is speculating on the very experience of excavating and structuring that knowledge.14
While thinking about this essay I happened to hear a segment of a radio program called The Bottom Line, a weekly BBC program about business entrepreneurs I had never encountered before. In it a businessman was talking about his training; Geoff Quinn the chief executive of clothing manufacturer T. M. Lewin said he had not had much education and went into clothing retailing at the age of sixteen, “but then I discovered the stock room—putting things in boxes, making lists, ordering the totality of the operation.”15 He spoke of the stockroom, with a certain sense of wonder, as the site in which everything came together, where the bits connected and made sense, less a repository than a launch pad for a sartorial world of possibilities. The idea that the “stockroom” could be an epiphany, could be someone’s education, was intriguing and I tried to think it out a bit . . . part Foucauldian notion of scientific classification and part Simondon’s pragmatic transductive thought about operations rather than meanings—the “stockroom” is clearly a perspective, an early recognition of the systemic and the interconnected, and a place from which to see the “big picture.” While the “stockroom” may be a rich and pleasing metaphor, it is also a vector, along which a huge range of manufacturing technologies, marketing strategies, and advertising campaigns meet up with labor histories and those of raw materials, with print technologies and internet disseminations, with the fantasmatic investments in clothes and their potential to renew us.
Therefore what if “education”—the complex means by which knowledges are disseminated and shared—could be thought of as a vector, as a quantity (force or velocity, for example), made up of both direction and magnitude? A powerful horizontality that looks at the sites of education as convergences of drives to knowledge that are in themselves knowledge? Not in the sense of formally inherited, archived, and transmitted knowledges but in the sense that ambition “knows” and curiosity “knows” and poverty “knows”—they are modes of knowing the world and their inclusion or their recognition as events of knowledge within the sites of education make up not the context of what goes on in the classroom or in the space of cultural gathering, but the content.
Keller Easterling in her exceptionally interesting book Enduring Innocence builds on Arjun Appadurai’s notion of “imagined worlds” as “the multiple worlds that are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe . . . these mixtures create variegated scapes described as “mediascapes and “ethnoscapes.” Which, says Easterling, by “naturalizing the migration and negotiation of traveling cultural forms allows these thinkers [such as Appadurai] to avoid impossible constructs about an authentic locality.”16 From Easterling’s work I have learned to understand such sites as located forms of “intelligence”—both information and stealth formation. To recognize the operations of “the network” in relation to structures of knowledge in which no linearity could exist and the direct relation between who is in the spaces of learning, the places to which they are connected, the technologies that close the gaps in those distances, the unexpected and unpredictable points of entry that they might have, the fantasy projections that might have brought them there—all agglomerate as sites of knowledge.
We might be able to look at these sites and spaces of education as ones in which long lines of mobility, curiosity, epistemic hegemony, colonial heritages, urban fantasies, projections of phantom professionalization, new technologies of both formal access and less formal communication, a mutual sharing of information, and modes of knowledge organization, all come together in a heady mix—that is the field of knowledge and from it we would need to go outwards to combine all of these as actual sites of knowledge and produce a vector.
Having tried to deconstruct as many discursive aspects of what “free” might mean in relation to knowledge, in relation to my hoped-for-academy, I think that what has come about is the understanding of “free” in a non-liberationist vein, away from the binaries of confinement and liberty, rather as the force and velocity by which knowledge and our imbrication in it, move along. That its comings-together are our comings-together and not points in a curriculum, rather along the lines of the operations of “singularity” that enact the relation of “the human to a specifiable horizon” through which meaning is derived, as Jean-Luc Nancy says.17 Singularity provides us with another model of thinking relationality, not as external but as loyal to a logic of its own self-organization. Self-organization links outwardly not as identity, interest, or affiliation, but as a mode of coexistence in space. To think “knowledge” as the working of singularity is actually to decouple it from the operational demands put on it, to open it up to processes of multiplication and of links to alternate and unexpected entities, to animate it through something other than critique or defiance—perhaps as “free.”
© 2010 e-flux and the author