1: growing boundary objects
Leigh Star’s words and person are threaded through my knowledge ecologies in ways largely indirect yet pivotal, making up the transcontextual heart of this talk. I have been quoting Leigh for years, reading her feminist work since, yes, the seventies, and using her ideas and tools in the decades since. Although rarely in the same locations at the same time, we shared various Santa Cruz communities and many friends. Yet I may have spoken to her directly only once. Here we are at UCSC today, gathering to trace a pattern, a thread from Leigh’s work that connects us: Cui bono? we ask with her, justice? science? knowledge? who benefits? what benefit to whom? (1991: 45; 1995: 89) What, in a last essay, Leigh called “growing boundary objects,” is the title and center of what I have to share: how a curiosity about growing boundary objects is urgent today, necessary for understanding our travels among feminist knowledge worlds in the midst of global academic restructuring. (2010: 602)
We work for what Leigh called good and just standards for those who have suffered their absence, as we struggle to befriend an often mandated transdisciplinarity and there to recognize comrades. (Clarke 2010: 591) Having to participate in social learnings of many sorts across ecologies of knowledge, we learn to sort knowledge managements, and are helped by the very sensations of social cognition amid intensities of affect.
With Leigh and with Gloria Anzalduá, Chela Sandoval and others, we look around for nepantleras, “those who facilitate passage between worlds,” a perpendicular knowledge for the messy and conflictual. (Anzalduá 2002: 1, ftn)
For a long time now, I’ve used Leigh’s work to think about feminist theory as a conceptual and material infrastructure that holds in tension • its objects such as ideas and tools, • its players as theorists, makers, and agents within identity politics, • its sites of production such as schools of thought, particular institutions in time, forms of power, • its layered assemblages, accretions and networks such as disciplines and their critiques, feminist activity in various places, times and generations, political actions and resistances. (King 2001) Whether these are the right categories or not, the complexity of mapping such layers of conceptual and material infrastructur-ing is hopefully clear.
And nowadays I am especially curious about the roles of boundary objects in such an understanding of feminist theory. Objects such as critique itself, what we call standpoint theory or intersectionality, the categories of material feminisms. I inspect and inhabit such boundary objects, curious about them as • spaces for communication, • as carefully tacit, deliberatively discreet grounds for collaboration without agreement, • as objects wrought over time through intensive negotiations over practice and terminology, • as structured objects that permit recursion at different levels of system holding paradox in tension, • as non-standardized objects in a trajectory of standardization over time. From my history with women’s studies and my training in HistCon I have a special interest in non-disciplinary knowledges, those at the edges of standardization. Leigh’s last essay on boundary objects identified a cycle in which new standardizations result in residual categories that in turn require new boundary objects. (2010:614-15) I thought immediately of the travels over time of the feminist identity category “bisexual,” from Freudian polymorphorous possibility to the uncategorizable to a gay political category of everything residual to a new feminist identity with political meaning.
Nepantleras – including the so-called wizards or gurus of technology organizations – because they live in “enough worlds at the same time,” in the words of Lucy Suchman, are folks with a feel for work-arounds in ranges. (Star 1995: 106-7; Suchman & Scharmer 1999) In feminist identity politics we hear Chela Sandoval’s working out differential consciousness, her explorations of layers of structuring pathways in a politics of grace, flexibility, and strength. As differential consciousness Sandoval models for us how to honor the sensitive touchpoint of critique without regarding that as its object’s only essential truth. (Sandoval 2000: 60)
How do they, nepantleras and boundary objects, do all this kind of work?
One thread among those “patterns that connect” Leigh Star and me, is an appreciation for the work of Gregory Bateson, especially for the thinking about what Bateson means by a “double bind” and what happens if you actually manage to survive one. (Bateson 1979: 8) Bateson’s idea of the transcontextual deals in double binds and double takes. These sometime confusions, sometime gifts, go together with not-altogether-voluntary movements between infrastructures and among assemblages. (Bateson 1972: 272) Star refers to Bateson when she reflects on the origins of the concept of a boundary object: “As I delved deeper into the relations between developers and users, it became clear that a kind of communicative tangle was occurring. I used the work of Gregory Bateson, who had studied these sorts of communicative mishaps under the heading of ‘double binds.’ As with Bateson’s work on schizophrenics, and what he called ‘the transcontextual syndrome,’’ the messages that were coming at level one from the systems developers were not being heard on that level by the users and vice versa. What was obvious to one was a mystery to another. What was trivial to one was a barrier to another. Yet, clarifying this was never easy. The users liked the interface when they were sat in front of it. Yet, they did not know how to make a reliable working infrastructure out of it. They would ask the … team, who would reply in terms alien to them. I began to see this as a problem of infrastructure – and its relative nature.” (2010: 610; Bateson 1972: 276)
Reading this essay sometimes I find myself unexpectedly overwhelmed with feelings. The scary affects of conflict are triggered: the invisible work of intensity and passion, the working out of so-called civility and risk-managing action. Adele Clarke, in her obituary for Science, Technology and Human Values, quotes from one of Leigh’s syllabi: “Borderlands are full of motion and emotion.” (Clarke 2010: 589) Nowadays I find myself feeling – in the midst of working to articulate and inhabit transcontextual feminisms, a globally restructuring academy, and a coming-into-being posthumanities.
4: knowledges distributing and their lively agencies
I have been reflecting on how, since the nineties, changes in knowledge work, culture industries and the academy, include how intensely intrusive the active divergence and distribution of authors and audiences have become. What a double bind it is to be held responsible for these even when the very agencies for making, sharing, patterning, and using knowledge are neither controlling nor individual. The terms in which movement among knowledge worlds is often mandated by a globally restructuring academy, are far from consistent. Indeed, interdisciplinarity can even be high-jacked to justify consolidated units and resources and to promote an easily assessed instrumental practicality, as if the standard for good interdisciplinary methodology was easy assessment. Meanwhile disciplinary chauvinisms have become urgent, personal and compensatory. And quantitative assessments of productivity and authority are now measures for advancement, status or just getting a job done. In an environment in which many knowledge worlds compete to establish and maintain authority, the empirical, the data-driven, the concrete, and the local have special salience, all more manageable, more easily broken up into tasks, more easily held accountable to a very particular set of folks and their sometimes quite properly urgent ethics. But, at the same time, diverging knowledge worlds keep making all such management problematic, uneven, partial, at times virtually impossible. I find that being inside and moved around literally by the very material and conceptual structures you are working to understand and survive is a kind of double-bind self-consciousness only partially available for explicit, or direct discussion. Under global academic restructuring we are obliged to network among all these lively agencies, as we look to see things and to feel them, as they exist for others, in different degrees of resolution, of grain of detail. (King 2008)
5: intensive & extensive
I’ve always loved Leigh Star’s insistence that we can both foreswear claims to epistemological superiority as well as keep our commitments – those within communities of practice and to local meanings. (1995:22) Some of the passion and scary affect of boundary work with boundary objects has to do with feeling put right back into communicative double binds that some boundary objects have worked hard to restructure in layers of tacit divergence. Star talks about “understanding local tailoring as a form of work that is invisible to the whole group and how a shared representation may be quite vague and at the same time quite useful.” (2010: 607)
I am curious about the relational play between what I call intensive and extensive knowledge practices in transdisciplinarity. Intensive practices are those closely negotiated among relatively bounded communities of practice, such as disciplines-in-the-making, local alliances, threatened units, or long-lived organizations, and they are often used to emphasize rigor and membership. I tend to find myself having to justify extensive practices, those of speculative connections, practical coalitions, and trial and error learning; such as one finds in transdisciplinary projects, transmedia storytelling, and alternative practices-in-the-making. These tend to emphasize peripheral participation and the edges of standardized practices. Boundary objects sometimes mediate among extensive and intensive practices simultaneously. For example, Kathy Davis calls the feminist object intersectionality a “buzzword.” (2008) But I prefer to think of it as a boundary object in order to call attention to its intensive local tailorings in the plural as well as its values as a shared representation across extensive gatherings, thus holding in tension divergent critiques and alternative solutions to them. I like that extensive investigations perpendicularly analyze relative and relational shifts across authoritative and alternative knowledges, and that their displays can work without displacing the intensive work of specific communities of practice. This is that perpendularity of extensive examination as transcontextual – befriending paradox and sensitized to double binds. But as Star notes: “Over time, people (often administrators or regulatory agencies) try to control the tacking back-and forth, and especially, to standardize and make equivalent the ill-structured and well-structured aspects of the particular boundary object.” (2010: 613-4) Looking at a feminist boundary object such as intersectionality, I prefer to consider the extensive and intensive, rather than use the terminology of ill- and well-structured for its simultaneous robustness and plasticity. And I find myself only too reluctant to endorse its standardization, straining to hold in place this moment of paradoxical tension, even as I see that moment obviously passing. “We live in a world where the battles and dramas between the formal and informal, the ill structured and the well structured, the standardized and the wild, are being continuously fought….” Star says. (2010:614) I have my own passionate commitments, limited, partial, and misrecognized as they must be, even as I work to nurture particular boundary objects, by explicitly valuing their invisible works, even while foreseeing cycles of standardization they participate within. A multiple worlds view of, say, material feminisms, speculatively feminist amid varying ranges of generations, disciplines, canons, political action, can work with communicative tangles – but may not be able to, perhaps should not be able to, lower the intensities of conflict or totally resolve anomalies.
6: grain of detail
Yet still I find myself valuing the growing and tending of feminist boundary objects, and offer some transcontextual attentions I hope water them for some of the urgent work of transdisciplinary action. The “rigor” of transcontextual feminist methods comes into play I believe when we welcome that “People often cannot see what they take for granted until they encounter someone who does not take it for granted” (Bowker and Star 1999: 291), and work for an exquisite sensitivity to each horizon of possible resources and infrastructures, local exigencies, and differential memberships. Extensive explorations of intensive meanings scope and scale, a point Star notes at the end of her growing boundary objects essay. (2010: 612-13) Such extensive exploration works out in and around grain of detail, noting both • membership and • peripheral participation. Valuing and evaluating simultaneously • intensive knowledge management and • extensive knowledge inspections. Recognizing and rewarding the paradoxical work by • distributed author agencies struggling to contact • distributed, niche, emergent “audiences” or uses. All this requires both • scoping out: assemblage and infrastructure and • scaling in: closely negotiated disciplinary interests.
Transdisciplinary work befriends and experiences a range of academic and other genres of writing, entailment and analysis, befriends and experiences their consequent and diverging values, sometimes in tacit collaboration, but here in perpendicular examination. Transcontextual feminisms as I have come to understand them, inspired by Star’s investigations among cognitive infrastructures, have to scope and scale among Ecologies of Knowledge. (1995) They work to remain curious: about both the passionate affiliations that intensive knowledge work done among close and precise disciplinary grains of detail require and produce, and also the necessarily recursive and speculative wanderings among knowledge worlds to produce extensive pattern-makings that transdisciplinary work makes possible.
Cui bono? we ask with Leigh Star. Justice? Science? Knowledge? What benefits accrue to whom? Knowing boundary objects and also knowing how they grow are tools we need today to ask this question as well as to travel feminist knowledge worlds of science as knowledge and justice as political attention, full of longing, fear, conflict, confusion and gifted imaginations.