Mar 16, 2009


I was recently in London, and attended a lecture at Goldsmiths by Adrian Rifkin, professor in art writing. Rifkin's lecture was on the topic of art research. One thing that caught my attention was his remarks on disciplines.

In the lecture, Rifkin commented that he wasn't an advocate of the words interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary. Transdisciplinarity, he said, implies the imposition of a single sovereign transcendental discipline, one discipline to rule them all I suppose. Interdisciplinarity implies merging several sovereign disciplines into a new discipline. Both retain the sovereignty of disciplines: they suggest we start with disciplines as a base and build from there.

Rifkin preferred adisciplinarity: without a discipline. He suggested as an example that art can be adisciplinary. Art is annunciatory, in art it is possible to make things that don't recognize disciplinary boundaries, or that confuse and disrupt those boundaries in productive ways. (See my previous post on Jeremy Deller).

When I thought about this later, I thought perhaps the Internet, too, might be described as adisciplinary, without a discipline. The universal linkage of anything to anything else flattens disciplinary boundaries. So perhaps adisciplinary makes sense.

As a holder of degrees in different fields, some people refer to me as interdisciplinary, and I share Rifkin's discomfort with this word. When I think, I don't think in terms of disciplines. If someone starts talking about unbalanced hashing functions or about minimalism I don't switch between a "science" or "art" discipline. We all have what Wittgenstein called a mental toolbox, a compound collection of professional languages, tools and ideas that we work with. Disciplines make no sense in that framework.

Also, perhaps strangely, when people talk of disciplines, I find myself thinking of my friend's dog Rocko. Rocko, who is good at tricks, is at times well-disciplined, and at other times needs disciplining. These other aspects of the meaning of discipline - being in control or being punished - are important. Disciplines are not simply an organization of knowledge, they encode power structures. Foucault was thinking along these lines when he wrote "Discipline and Punish." Here is an extract from Part III of Discipline and Punish where Foucault discusses the relationship of control and power in the formation of disciplines:

"To begin with, there was the scale of the control: it was a question not of treating the body, en masse, 'wholesale', as if it were an indissociable unity, but of working it 'retail', individually; of exercising upon it a subtle coercion, of obtaining holds upon it at the level of the mechanism itself - movements, gestures, attitudes, rapidity: an infinitesimal power over the active body. Then there was the object of the control: it was not or was no longer the signifying elements of behaviour or the language of the body, but the economy, the efficiency of movements, their internal organization; constraint bears upon the forces rather than upon the signs; the only truly important ceremony is that of exercise. Lastly, there is the modality: it implies an uninterrupted, constant coercion, supervising the processes of the activity rather than its result and it is exercised according to a codification that partitions as closely as possible time, space, movement. These methods, which made possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body, which assured the constant subjection of its forces and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility, might be called 'disciplines'. Many disciplinary methods had long been in existence - in monasteries, armies, workshops. But in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the disciplines became general formulas of domination. They were different from slavery because they were not based on a relation of appropriation of bodies; indeed, the elegance of the discipline lay in the fact that it could dispense with this costly and violent relation by obtaining effects of utility at least as great. They were different, too, from 'service', which was a constant, total, massive, non-analytical, unlimited relation of domination, established in the form of the individual will of the master, his 'caprice'. They were different from vassalage, which was a highly coded, but distant relation of submission, which bore less on the operations of the body than on the products of labour and the ritual marks of allegiance. Again, they were different from asceticism and from 'disciplines' of a monastic type, whose function was to obtain renunciations rather than increases of utility and which, although they involved obedience to others, had as their principal aim an increase of the mastery of each individual over his own body. The historical moment of the disciplines was the moment when an art of the human body was born, which was directed not only at the growth of its skills, nor at the intensification of its subjection, but at the formation of a relation that in the mechanism itself makes it more obedient as it becomes more useful, and conversely. What was then being formed was a policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behaviour. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. A 'political anatomy', which was also a 'mechanics of power', was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others' bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practised bodies, 'docile' bodies. Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience). In short; it dissociates power from the body; on the one hand, it turns it into an 'aptitude', a 'capacity', which it seeks to increase; on the other hand, it reverses the course of the energy, the power that might result from it, and turns it into a relation of strict subjection. If economic exploitation separates the force and the product of labour, let us say that disciplinary coercion establishes in the body the constricting link between an increased aptitude and an increased domination.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1975. trans. Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, 2nd Ed (1995). Part III, p.137.

Thinking in this framework, adisciplinarity, the end of disciplines, can be seen as a utopian quest - a quest for an end of control, a quest for a world where all forms of knowledge are equal, and all people are equal. It is a nice vision. However, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, it takes around ten thousand hours, or ten years of practice, to become a master of a skill. When I go to see a doctor, I legitimately hope the doctor has put in those hours. I would not want to rely on WebMD. This is why we are all willing slaves to the docility of disciplines. Expertise has tangible benefits.

Finally, talking about adisciplinarity masks that, if anything, the world is becoming more specialized. The web has not reduced the number of disciplines, to the contrary, it has multiplied the number of things we now recognize as forms of expert knowledge. Suddenly there is a market, for example, for someone who specializes in jellyfish aquariums. And when I seek an expert, I no longer look for someone who just has the right diploma (the right discipline) - I do a search on their background, training, reviews, website and so on... Web technologies have created a cambrian explosion of disciplinarity, both a daunting and a thrilling prospect.

We have arrived at the age of the 'patadiscipline, dedicated to studying what lies beyond the realm of the interdisciplines. I am a staunch 'patadisciplinarian.

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