Radical media, politics and culture.

Ned Rossiter, "Organised Networks: Transdisciplinarity and New Institutional Forms"

'Organised Networks: Transdisciplinarity and New Institutional Forms'

Ned Rossiter

The social-technical dynamics of ICT-based networks constitute
organisation in ways substantively different from networked
organisations (unions, state, firms, universities). My interest in
this paper is to say a few things about the process of scalar
transformation and transdisciplinarity as they relate to the
invention of new institutional forms. Having established these
background conditions, processes and practices, I will then move on
to the topic of autonomous education.

Institutions function to organise social relations. It follows, then,
that the social-technical dynamics peculiar to a range of digital
media technologies (mailing lists, collaborative blogs, wikis,
content management systems) institute new modes of networked
sociality. It is easy to dismiss this process of emergent
institutionalisation. Many would assert that it simply results in a
bureaucratisation and rigidity of social-technical communication
systems whose default setting is one of flows, decentralisation,
horizontality, etc. I would suggest such knee-jerk, technically
incorrect responses risk a disengagement from the political and thus
from politics. There is a passivity that attends this kind of
position. Moreover, it is a position that fails the politics of
reappropriating the psychic, social and semiotic territory of
institutions. The process of instituting networks involves a movement
toward the strategic rather than tactical dimension of net politics.
Another reason to turn towards the strategic dimension has to do with
the short-termism that accompanies many tactical projects. The logic
of the tactic is one of situated intervention. And then it
disappears. There are of course some notable exceptions -- indymedia,
makrolab and the Yes Men come to mind as quite long-term experiments
in networks and tactical media; yet these exceptions are not, I would
suggest, instances of transdisciplinarity.

The practice of transdisciplinarity preconditions the invention of
new institutional forms. As Gary Genosko notes of the metamethodology
of Félix Guattari, transdisciplinarity is predicated on experiments
in institutional formation (2003: 29). In the case of organised
networks, transdisciplinarity is constituted by "the political", by
the tensions that underpin cross-sectoral, multi-institutional
engagements that make possible new modes and new forms of research.
Transdisciplinarity can be distinguished from interdisciplinary or
multidisciplinary research. Despite all the claims in OECD reports
and government and university policy rhetoric on research,
interdisciplinary is not about networks but rather clusters, and
typically takes place in 'private and public labs and research
centres'.[1] Such settings, and the institutional and political-
economic conditions which lead to interdisciplinary research, also
results in another key difference with trandisciplinarity.
Interdisciplinarity rests within the regime of intellectual property,
which operate as an architecture of control. As such, the knowledge
produced is locked up and contained; it refuses the social relations
that make possible the development of intellectual action, and it
therefore refuses the potential for social transformation because of
the way knowledge is enclosed within a property relation.

This is not to dispense with tactics since tactics are the source of
renewal. Interestingly enough, tactics parallel the logic of capital.
If you consider core-periphery relations, if you look at the way in
which capital has to incorporate, appropriate or what Brian Holmes
spoke of as a cooptation of the margins (or the productive efforts of
the artist, cultural critic, designer) in order to replenish and
reproduce itself,[2] we see this operation historically time and
again. It's therefore important to remember that autonomists are not
somehow operating outside the state but rather operating as
disruptive potentiality whose difference is defined by relations of
negation, refusal, exodus, subtraction, etc. Certainly there are
important qualitative differences in the relation individuals and
peoples have with the state. Think, for instance, of the experience
of migrants and so-called illegal movement of peoples across
territories, or the precarious worker. Precarity, let's remember, is
an experience that traverses a range of class scales, and may even be
considered as a post-Fordist technique of border control that
distinguishes 'self-managed exploitation... from those who must be
exploited (or worse) by direct coercion'.[3]

So while the organised network has a relative institutional autonomy,
by necessity it must engage other institutional partners who may
often be opposed to the interests of networks. Organised networks
share something with NGOs, CSOs or even think-tanks. Yet there is a
radical dissimilarity and qualitative difference between organised
networks and these other institutional forms. Take NGOs and CSOs, for
example, and the techniques of governance adopted throughout the WSIS
process. Within any partnership there is of course a compromise. In
order to obtain the necessary discursive legitimacy required to
participate within the institutional settings of WSIS, NGOs and CSOs
had to engage a model of organisation that was antithetical to the
self-organising logic of networks. NGOs and CSOs were thus required
to adopt the representational form known throughout WSIS as
"multistakeholderism" - the primary model of governance for managing,
if not realising, relations between business, government and civil
society. Multistakeholderism is predicated on representative models
of liberal democracy, and such abstraction frequently conflicts with
the grass-roots networks that characterise many NGOs and CSOs.
Representation does not correspond with the logic of networks, which
are better understood as non-representational forms of politics.

In saying this I do not wish to valorise the horizontality of
networks. The tendency of networks to be described in terms of
horizontality results in an occlusion of "the political", which
consists of antagonisms that underpin sociality. As I have discussed
on other occasions, it is technically and socially incorrect to
assume that hierarchical and centralising architectures and practices
are absent from net cultures. At the technical level, one only has to
look at the debates surrounding the information society and internet
governance: hierarchical and political-economic aspects of assigning
domain names, location of root servers, politics of IPRs, uneven
geography of information flows, determination of standards, effects
of trade agreements on content production and distribution, etc. The
hierarchical dimension to networked sociality is easy to account for:
one only has consider the cohort of alpha males scheming in the back
rooms of so many organisational forms. Even in the case of wikis,
which on the surface appear to be exemplary non-representational
forms insofar as labour on content production is anonymous, again we
need only to venture through the backdoor to see the ringleaders at
work. Of course the technical and social aspects of ICT networks are
not mutually exclusive, but rather interpenetrate one another in a
plethora of ways. A challenge for organised networks is thus to
address the software problem and the social problem.

The collaborative interest of organised networks is to consider what
the scalar transformation of organised networks entails vis-à-vis the
aggregation of educational resources distributed within and across
networks. Networks have been fantastic at developing educational
resources such as documentation of open source software, university
course materials, health-care information, tips on political
organisation, etc. Obviously there's a lot to learn from NGOs and the
revival of union organising as seen in the Justice for Janitors
movement. Certainly my position is not to dismiss these institutional
forms outright. A focus on educational resources strikes me as a
matter of tactics that feed strategic interests. Without the
tactical, organised networks collapse into stasis. Here it is
necessary to recognise the situation of informational politics.
Paradoxically, perhaps, neoliberalism - with its logic of
outsourcing, privatisation and dissembling institutional frameworks -
conditions the possibility of organised networks. Just as NGOs and
CSOs have filled the void created by the neoliberal state's
evacuation from the social, so too must organised networks seize upon
the institutional persona of the "external provider".

What I am suggesting, then, is for networks to intervene into the
market of higher education. The university is quite a vulnerable
institution actually. It is quite uncertain, and indeed could be
characterised as a place of precarity for many. As many have
experienced, the labour force of universities is predominantly
composed of casual workers whose seasonal pattern of employment
resembles that of the strawberry picker. Unions typically fail to
represent the interests of casual workers, since their interest is to
protect the security of those with tenured positions.

As far as I can determine, an intervention into education market is
one of the few ways in which organised networks may obtain economic
autonomy, which depends upon securing an economic base. Without this,
organised networks have little chance of sustainability and little
possibility of scalar transformation. There is a capacity for
networks to mobilise their resources in transversal ways in the form
of master classes, summer schools, and training programs that operate
both internally to and externally from universities. Universities are
undergoing a process of losing their expertise, their ability to
bring in new knowledge and to transform the disciplines, which have
become incredibly rigid and dull. Universities can be characterised
by their deficiency of thought. They don't know how to move
themselves in ways that incorporate what Bateson called 'the
difference that makes a difference'. The strange thing is that
neoliberalism makes possible the difference that makes a difference.
This is the perversity of neoliberalism. The structural logic of
neoliberalism makes possible openings, and openings invite
interventions that begin to enable the financing of autonomous,
precarious, experimental research and teaching that shows no sign of
being catered for in current OECD, government and university policy

My proposal can be easily criticised for appropriating the outside -
the experimental elements that so often energise networks on the
frontline of invention - and closing it down again. This is the
classic critique of appropriation. We see this most obviously in the
fashion industries. Remember punk? If you wanted, you could pay 200
bucks for a pair of jeans with a rip in them. Hilariously, there was
no shortage of idiots who went out and purchased their damaged goods.
The same can be said about knowledge. What functions against the
closure of minds and resources is the fact that educational business
projects undertaken by a network of networks is predicated on
principles of open source software, society and culture. Obviously
there will be fights over how best to redistribute funds within and
across networks. But that's a matter that can be sorted out. Having
said this, a problem remains. There is only so much free labour that
can be done within the networks. Certainly it helps networks to have
a parasitical relation with networked organisations (universities,
for example). But eventually free labour exhausts itself.


My ideas on transdisciplinarity are indebted to exchanges with Soenke
Zehle, among others.

video: http://www.m2hz.net/uusityo/index.php?title=Ned_Rossiter_1_4

Finnish Social Forum, Helsinki, 1-2 April, 2006
'Autonomous Research' seminar


1. Gary Genosko, ‘Félix Guattari: Towards a Transdisciplinary
Metamethodology’, Angelaki 8.1 (2003): 29-140.

2. Video recordings of talks by Carlos Fernández, Brian Holmes, and
Stevphen Shukaitis and the follow-up discussions can be found at:

3. Angela Mitropoulos and Brett Neilson, 'Exceptional Times, Non-
Governmental Spacings, and Impolitical Movements', Vacarme (Janvier,
2006), http://www.vacarme.eu.org/article484.html