Jag presenterade följande påståenden under den föga fantasieggande rubriken “Six contentions about transdisciplinary research in the cultural sciences” i samband med en konferens vid Chalmers i våras som tyvärr inte höll vad den lovade. Förhoppningen är att de sex punkterna ska kunna stå för sig själva, men för den som till äventyrs är intresserad av bakgrunden till resonemanget – som bland annat inbegriper den rafflande historien om en havererad ansökan till UGOT Challenges – finns mitt fullständiga bidrag att ladda ner här.

1) … that the nascent field of artistic research has yet to develop its full potential.

What we call art invariably tends – or so I would contend – towards what might be described as a zero degree of subjectivity: the point where object and subject, being and meaning, needs and wants converge. It follows that artistic research cannot deviate too far from this point of departure without ceasing to be artistic in any meaningful sense. However, the relative convergence of object and subject in artistic research becomes problematic from the point of view of established academic research, which presupposes a more or less sharp distinction between object and subject as a condition of possibility for knowledge (as opposed to strictly personal insight) in general. It is probably for this reason that artistic research has typically taken artistic ‘practice’ as its object: the nebulous notion of practice, in part on account of its very vagueness, has provided a kind of comfort zone which has lended artistic research a measure of scientific legitimacy but also inhibited it from developing its full potential. In the long run, such an approach even runs the risk of permanently isolating artistic research from the wider academic community.

2) … that the potential of artistic research can be developed to the full only in a transdisciplinary setting, in the first place alongside the humanities.

The ‘humanities’ – another nebulous notion, to say the least. For present purposes, I primarily use the term as a shorthand for a mode of knowledge that, although not embodied to the same radical extent as artistic research, is nonetheless characterized by a significant level of entanglement with its object of knowledge – an object which, by implication, can only partially be dissociated from the subject that seeks to know it. All knowledge of human culture belongs in this category, on the condition that such culture is conceived as something to which we ourselves belong. In the apt description of William Franke: “To gain knowledge of human beings one must actually participate in human experience and know it from within, personally, as a subject, rather than only analyze it detachedly and objectively from without. […] For in all knowledge in the humanities, we experience ourselves. This includes our possible selves – the possibilities for our existence.” (Franke 2011, 450) From such a perspective, it is clearly no coincidence that the humanities have traditionally turned to the arts (or at least to their products) as a privileged object of study. It is this twofold proximity – in form as well as subject matter – that make the humanities seem an obvious point of connection to harness the potential of artistic research.

3) … that any collaboration between the arts and humanities will also need to be extended to include the social sciences.

Indeed, such an alliance might even be a little too obvious: the dictum that ‘like attracts like’ also holds for academic endeavors. Hence, we must reckon with the risk that a collaboration which limits itself to the arts and humanities will only serve to confirm such cherished – and untested – convictions that both fields have in common (or, in the worst case scenario, their no less cherished prejudices against each other). Clearly, some kind of epistemic counterweight is needed to maintain what already amounts to a precarious transdisciplinary balance. Fortunately, we do not need to search far and wide to find one. In relation to both the arts and (to a somewhat lesser degree) the humanities, the social sciences represent a diametrically opposed ideal: that of a truly ‘objective’ knowledge of human culture, directly modelled on the natural sciences. If art tends to a zero degree of subjectivity, to the perfect convergence of object and subject, the social sciences set themselves an antithetical but equally ambitious goal: the infinite divergence of object and subject. One might argue that very few disciplines in the contemporary academy would actually champion such an ideal, but there is no denying that it still holds sway over their practical organization.

4) … that the arts, humanities and social sciences would all benefit from such a risky engagement.

To sum up the preceding argument, what a birds-eye view of the entire spectrum from artistic research to hard-line social science reveals is precisely the underlying continuum from minimal (‘degree zero’) to maximal (theoretically infinite) divergence between object and subject. As the historical expansion of academic knowledge production proceeds at an exponential rate, we must try all the harder to keep this continuum in sight. Discipline formation may be a prerequisite for specialization – not to mention an administrative necessity – but it often results in intellectual compartmentalization, thereby posing a threat to the integrity of knowledge production itself. Today, perhaps more than ever, differentiation urgently needs to be counteracted by integration, the range of fields, disciplines and sub-disciplines brought together under what the philosopher of culture Ernst Cassirer would have called the “integral of experience” (Cassirer 1957, 203). Such an undertaking is not only of common concern, but might also prove mutually beneficial – even, I dare argue, for social science in the ‘hardest’ possible sense. If the arts, when left unchecked, tend towards the associative, the social sciences run the inverse risk of dissociation (which can lead, for the collective just as for the individual, to both derealization and depersonalization). As regards the humanities, they would finally get a long-awaited chance to reaffirm their traditional role as an intermediary between subjective and objective experience, Erlebnis and Erfahrung – but only if they are both willing and able to surrender their traditional grounds of legitimacy, following the arts and social sciences out into the “thicket of things” (Kracauer 1997, 309).

5) … that the collaboration should be further extended to include information technology.

What the humanities need in order to overcome their ingrained spectatorial passivity might just be a sound dose of epistemic electrotherapy. It remains to be seen if the newly established Centre for Digital Humanities at the University of Gothenburg will be able to administer such a treatment locally, or if it will itself succumb to the same old condition. In any case, to understand the transformations of contemporary cultural existence invariably entails addressing the experience of digitization. Hence, the field of IT would seem to provide, not only a counterweight to the humanities, but also a point of connection – empirical as well as methodological – between all of the fields involved. In thus ‘short-circuiting’ the faculties of imagination, judgement and reason by way of digital technology, the transdisciplinary venture outlined here possesses the potential of generating nothing short of a circle of learning – an enchaînement electronique de connoissances, to paraphrase Diderot – for the 21st century. We might already be a decade and a half into it, but academic knowledge still lags behind.

6) … that architecture provides the perfect testing ground for the proposed undertaking.

To the innocent bystander, academic research in the field of architecture may seem to be a simple subset of artistic research – which is logical enough, considering that the practice of architecture is typically included in what the historian of philosophy Paul Oskar Kristeller famously dubbed ”the modern system of the arts” (Kristeller 1951). In fact, such a classification is quite misleading. If the practice of architecture does indeed feature an artistic aspect, it is only because nothing – whether human, non-human or even inhuman – is alien to it. Rather than one art among others, architecture constitutes an exceedingly diverse field of practical know-how admixed with theoretical knowledge that can (and should) be approached from both artistic, humanistic, social scientific and technical perspectives. For present purposes, architecture therefore provides an intermediary field, a kind of ‘grey zone’ – or, alluding to a recent article on “architectural ways to knowledge” (Gow, Ivarsson & Karlsson 2015), a ‘penumbra’ – where all the other forms and modes of knowledge can meet and mingle. Considering that urbanization is another hallmark of contemporary experience – the fact that more than half of the world’s population now live in cities has been rehearsed often enough since it was first announced by the UN in 2008 – the choice seems altogether reasonable. In letting architecture fill in our projected circle of learning, we also complete the step from abstract to concrete, from an all-too-intangible public sphere to the tangibility of public spaces and places.


Cassirer, E. 1957. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Vol. 3, The Phenomenology of Knowledge. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Franke, W. 2011. Involved Knowing: On the Poetic Epistemology of the Humanities. In: The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 447–467.

Gow, M., Ivarsson, J. & Karlsson, U. 2015. Architecture in the penumbra. In: Sheppard, L. & Ruy, D. (eds.). The expanding periphery and the migrating center. Proceedings of the 2015 103rd ACSA Annual Meeting in Toronto. Toronto: ACSA Press.

Kracauer, S. 1997 [1960]. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kristeller, P. O. 1951. The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics. In: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 1951), pp. 496–527.