Undisciplined Unacademic Zone

Having recently had some time to indulge in guilty pleasures, I watched through four seasons of the Star Trek: Enterprise TV series, originally aired between 2001 and 2005. I enjoyed the show more than one might expect; nevertheless, I could not guarantee the same would hold true for someone who does not have a soft spot for science fiction. What is unquestionably interesting, however, for anyone trying to understand the dominating symbolic order we are all submerged in is an ideological reading of the series. Seen through the lenses of ideology critique, it turns out not to be about the future at all.

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The Kids Want Communism; Summer camp hosted by the Free/Slow University, Warsaw. Photo: Jan Sowa

It’s a show about the past, a very precise past: the colonial expansion of Western Europe that also happened to be the founding gesture of the United States of America, just as Star Trek: Enterprise culminates with the establishment of the United Federation of Planets. By projecting an image of a noble exploration seeking peaceful first contact with alien species, undertaken by ethical explorers never meaning any harm, the show retroactively intervenes in the representation of the colonial expansion of white men—yes, literally men, as women played virtually no role in the process—as well as their relations with other societies and cultures implicated in the colonial nomen omen enterprise. It should come as no surprise that the person second in the chain of command happens to be the science officer (a Vulcan female named T’Pol, played by Jolene Blalock). Contrary to this ideological picture, many careful examinations of the factual course of historical events have revealed a deep, intimate, and troubling link between knowing the colonial other and ruling her.1

All this may serve as a synecdoche of a wider phenomenon. The production of knowledge by scholars and scientists within academia—supposedly impartial and unbiased agents uninterested in personal gains just like the Enterprise’s crew—has always been one of the best alibis for realizing vested interests of the powers that be. As a matter of fact, institutional and political context, whatever it may be and whether the subjects involved see it or not, is a crucial, internal element of academic knowledge production and transmission. It has been well exposed in Jacques Lacan’s concept of the four discourses, where the discourse of the university is directly subservient to the discourse of the Master. As it was put by C. R. McMahon in a concise way, “the discourse of the University essentially attempts to regulate students . . . on behalf of ‘sound educational practices,’ responsibility, accountability, the productivity of the field and, ultimately, the state [emphasis added].”2

It should come as no surprise that calls for reforming academic institutions have been situated in the very core of the struggle for keeping academic knowledge within the immaterial commons and protecting it from enclosures. However legitimate this goal may be, there is also another solution to the problem at hand. The academy is very much like the church. It may have seemed for many centuries that reforming the church was crucial for changing the broader society. It was a sober assumption given the role institutionalized religion played in Western societies. However, the final solution turned out to be different: instead of wasting long years, and sometimes also your life, trying to reform the church, you can just stop going there and stop believing this institution holds the key to your—or anybody’s, for that matter—future or well-being. The very same thing is starting to happen with the institutionalized social and human sciences: as they are becoming more and more subsumed under capital, we are witnessing a fast expansion of what I would provisionally call the undisciplined unacademic zone or, shortly, unacademia (“knowledge generating unacademic practices” if you want the name to sound academic, grin).

The Kids Want Communism; Summer camp hosted by the Free / Slow University, Warsaw. Photo: Kuba Szreder
The Kids Want Communism; Summer camp hosted by the Free/Slow University, Warsaw. Photo: Kuba Szreder

To understand this process, we have to look back at the recent history of universities in Western societies. We are used to equating knowledge production with academic activities; however, it was only the so-called Humboldt model of university that closely intertwined the two with huge success in the 20th century. What is more, in the field of humanities and social sciences, this link has never been as strong as it was in exact and natural sciences. As you go through the history of Western thought, you will find a stream of first class intellectuals acting outside of academic institutions: Descartes, Montaigne, Spinoza, Hobbes, Marx, Luxemburg, Freud, Reich, Lacan, Wittgenstein, de Beauvoir, or Debord, to name just a few.

The decoupling of knowledge production and academic institution is nowadays accelerated by an unfortunate evolution of the latter. Universities were different entities occupying different positions within societies when Alexander von Humboldt sketched up his model in the early 19th century. Since then, and especially in the postwar period, academic institution have been more and more subdued to the requirements of state power and capital, which is understandable given their growing role in the so-called knowledge economy. As knowledge has become an ever more important means of production, its own production and reproduction has had to be more closely controlled either via direct commercialization (a growing role of private institutions) or via the withering away of the academy’s autonomy vis-à-vis the state. In this process, universities have become more and more incorporated into the administrative mechanisms of modern societies, with scholars turning into what may be called “clerks of knowledge.”

The undisciplined unacademic zone consists of various kinds of knowledge generating practices that deliberately distance themselves from the subsumption of knowledge under capital and from its protagonists: states and corporations as much as universities and academics. It is a vast, amorphous, and ever-evolving field, and I would not attempt to examine its systematic characterization in such a short text. I would rather point to what I believe to be some of the strongest poles or centers of gravity within this sphere.

One of these centers is the contemporary art world. The continuously present and active project of the big Avant-garde of the early 20th century, with their idea of abolishing the division between life and art seems to be doing better than their numerous gravediggers want us to believe. In recent years, due to various initiatives such as the Occupy movement and politicized global art shows like the 7th Berlin Biennale, it has even become more important. As Boris Groys argued recently, the question of truth is absolutely crucial to the very condition of contemporary artistic creation.3 For if art has nothing to do with truth, it is just a domain of taste, and the latter—as Pierre Bourdieu demonstrated beyond considerable doubt—is mainly a marker of one’s position in the class structure. Art devoid of truth is nothing but a toy for the elites: for those who have amassed enough capitals—material, symbolic, and social ones—to play with.

There are numerous examples of artists generating a pertinent and enlightening knowledge on various kinds of social phenomena: Martha Rosler on gentrification, Daniel Bozhkov on precarity, Patricia Reed on cognitive capitalism, Roman Dziadkiewicz on affective economy, Janek Simon on patterns of global symbolic and material exchanges, or Pierre Huyghe on transhumanism and culture-nature relations. Art institutions have become important players in knowledge circulation in a mesosphere opened up by a widening gap between general audience and an increasingly hermetic academic world.

Political and social activism is another important center of gravity. Problems such as growing inequalities or accelerating precarization have been addresses in reflexive ways by activists before they got systematic attention from academics. One of the most interesting intellectual traditions of contemporary humanities and social sciences, (post)operaismo, derives directly from radical worker activists’ milieus in postwar Italy.4 This stream of action and reflection played a key role in shaping a very inspiring tool: a methodology of co-research (Italian co-ricerca). It assumes that the most pertinent knowledge does not derive from abstract investigations undertaken by academics deliberately distancing themselves from the object of their study, but from a direct engagement of the researcher in social struggles and from the construction of collective subjectivities incorporating both the researcher and those who carry these struggles. There are brilliant, classical examples of this strategy, such as the inquiries carried out by Antonio Negri, Sergio Bologna, or Romano Alquati in Italian factories in the 1960s and 1970s. The technique has been recently employed to research call centers and logistics industry.5

Yet another set of unacademic practices that generate valuable knowledge is located within the world of media and journalism. Of course, a bulk of this world is creating more confusion and deception than knowledge; however, there are some very valuable and systematic exceptions. In the United States, the tradition of gonzo journalism, with its main protagonist Hunter S. Thompson, has provided us with unique glimpses into US social and cultural reality. It is particularly striking if you match it against major failures of institutionalized social science. Throughout the 1950s, US sociologists were obsessed with proving how well integrated and smoothly functioning the American society had been, only to be faced with an unprecedented wave of social unrest in the 1960s. You will get to know America much better by reading Thompson’s reporting than volumes produced by academic super stars such as Robert K. Merton or Talcott Parsons. In today’s media world, a lot of relevant, critical knowledge is generated by the so-called indymedia: independent media outlets presenting key issues ignored by the mainstream corporate media. Democracy Now with its daily shows offers a great example.

Finally, one can point to myriad independent/mock academic institutions rising on the fringes of the so-called third sector (the voluntary citizens’ associations) and social movements, sometimes linked either with traditional academic institutions or with activist circles. Examples include the radical self-organized Italian collective UniNomade (now, unfortunately, no longer active) or the Polish Free/Slow University of Warsaw (FSUW) that I have been personally associated with for several years. I will use this opportunity to ponder for a while upon FSUW and treat it as an example to illustrate strategies, challenges, and opportunities facing unacademia.

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The Kids Want Communism; Summer camp hosted by the Free/Slow University, Warsaw. Photo: Naomi Garriock

First of all, FSUW is not an institution in an administrative sense. It is a mock institution with no legal status; it is rather a continuous common practice of a group of people.6 As such, it can freely benefit from cooperation with various institutional partners—NGOs, universities, art galleries, squats—without having to take a definite institutional form. One may say that we operate in a fractional dimension that may be called a “Pi sector”7 As opposed to the third sector, FSUW is not a foundation or an association—it remains completely informal. However, as opposed to thefourth sector, it does not aim to function outside of the main stream of social communication. As a matter of fact, we do not believe in any outside—there is just one world, entirely permeated by the forces of capital, and any opposition to the latter can only be mounted from within. On the other hand, we do not aspire to be in the mainstream and evolve into a full-blown academic institution or an NGO. We remain at a distance from the mainstream for purely practical reasons: the mainstream remains severely limited by what is called the Overton window—a space of consensus and convergence where only a fraction of existing ideas can appear and function. It is politically important to broaden it; however, it is not a space for genuine thinking that needs to be dis-sensual and diverging.

If I were to describe FSUW’s strategy in one term, I would call it an opportunistic engagement, rephrasing the term “radical opportunism” put forward by Kuba Szreder.8 “Opportunistic” in the sense of using any opportunity – of course, that is ethically and politically acceptable—to further our agenda. “Engagement,” because FSUW was born out of our opposition to the neoliberal reforms of culture undertaken in Poland from 2009 onward. Issues related to neoliberaliztion have remained in the core of our activities ever since. At the beginning, we focused on the fate of NGOs in neoliberal capitalism, criticizing the subsumption of cultural production under profit-oriented policies. Hence the first slogan of FSUW: Culture not for profit. We denounced the neoliberal overproductivity and ubiquitous stress on competition. Hence the English translation of our Polish name (Wolny Uniwersytet Warszawy) – the word “wolny” means both “free” and “slow” in Polish. Kuba Szreder used this opportunity to coin our motto: It’s free, because it’s slow.9

Being opportunists, we used many strategies to develop our activities. We have collaborated intensely with the Warsaw-based Fundacja Bęc Zmiana, but also with mainstream academic institutions like the Warsaw University. We took part in art events and in regular academic conferences, some of them co-organized by FSUW as well. We edited books, most recently Joy Forever: The Political Economy of Social Creativity, published in cooperation with the London-based MayFly Books.10 We have also engaged in self-funded activities that were organized in completely informal ways, such as summer research camps in northern Poland, in 2011 and 2016.

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The Kids Want Communism; Summer camp hosted by the Free/Slow University, Warsaw. Photo: Jan Sowa

Initiatives undertaken within the undisciplined unacedemic zone have to face a lot of practical disadvantages: a lack of stable funding (or, quite often, no funding at all), a lack of infrastructure, a demand for constant enthusiasm and engagement that leads to painful burnouts and frustrations, etc., etc. We have confronted all of these obstacles in FSUW’s activities. They have, however, one enormous advantage over institutionalized social sciences and humanities: by being unacademic, they can remain undisciplined in both meanings of the world “discipline.”

Firstly, they cannot be disciplined and controlled by any symbolic power. They do not need to follow the Bologna process that is turning universities into extensions of capitalist factories. They do not have to worry about over-parametrization and over-evaluation that is slowly but steadily eroding the ethos of academic life. Thus, they can avoid something that C. W. Mills diagnosed once as one of the biggest problems of contemporary academia: the production of theories, models, and notions that are as true and methodically correct as they are irrelevant and unimportant for solving any issues we may face in our daily lives.11

Secondly, they do not need to worry about disciplinary division, and they can just study what they want in the way they find suitable. That is an enormous advantage. Disciplinary divisions are a contingent byproduct of the institutionalization of the pursuit of knowledge. They have nothing to do with how the real social world works and everything with how the academics reproduce within their institutions: sociologists breed other sociologists, economists other economists, and historians other historians, etc. For this to happen, there have to be diplomas issued in well-defined areas of knowledge and clear division lines for everyone to be able to defend their grounds and their resources. As Pierre Bourdieu showed, the fight over borders of disciplines—nomoi—is a tool of exercising power within them (who can be admitted and who gets thrown out).

That is very unfortunate. The social world does not divide into sociological, economic, psychological, and political processes. It is rather a rhizome of all of them, and we will never properly understand the human world by cutting it into chunks of various sizes and shapes convenient for professional academics to swallow. Those working in the undisciplined unacademic zone do not need to worry about these dividing lines. They can let knowledge follow desire and not the other way around. It is a formidable advantage. If there is an ethical, practical, and philosophical conclusion stemming from the vast body of psychoanalytic investigation that has accumulated over the last hundred years, it is that only by following desire can we get to the Real. That makes the undisciplined unacademic zone not only attractive for free spirits, but also crucial for our collective understanding of who and where we are as humanity.


About the author

Jan Sowa (born 1976) is a dialectical materialist social theorist and researcher. He studied literature, philosophy, and psychology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland and University Paris VIII in Saint-Denis, France. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology and a habilitation in cultural studies. Jan Sowa conducted research and gave lectures at several universities in Poland and abroad (including, recently, the Jagiellonian University and the University of São Paulo, Brazil). He is also affiliated with the Free University Warsaw. He is a member of the Committee on Cultural Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, but he currently remains, by his own choosing, an independent scholar, not employed in any academic institution.


A contribution to issue #2: Inside the Mozosfera edited by Nikolett Erőss and Eszter Szakács



  1. See for example, Talal Asad, Anthropology & the Colonial Encounter (London: Ithaca Press, 1973 or Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).
  2. Christopher Robert McMahon, “Hysterical Academies: Lacan’s Theory of the Four Discourses,” The International Journal: Language, Culture, and Society 2 (1997), http://www.anialian.com/Hysterical_Academies.htm.
  3. See Boris Groys, “The Truth of Art,” e-flux Journal 71 (2016), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-truth-of-art/.
  4. For more about operaismo, see Steve Wright, Storming Heaven. Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 2002).
  5. See more discussion on this in the thematic issue of Ephemera journal: The Politics of Workers’ Inquiry, eds. Joanna Figiel, Stevphen Shukaitis, Abe Walker. Ephemera 14.3 (2014),  http://www.ephemerajournal.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/issue/14-3ephemera-aug14.pdf.
  6. FSUW’s core team comprises five people: Michał Kozłowski, Kuba Szreder, Bogna Swiątkowska, Szymon Żydek, and myself.
  7. Jan Sowa, “Goldex Poldex Madafaka, czyli raport z (oblężonego) Pi sektora,” in Europejskie polityki kulturalne 2015. Wersja polska, eds. Maria Lind, Raimund Minichbauer (2005; Warsaw: FSUW, 2009), http://nck.pl/media/study/europejskie_polityki_kulturalne_2015.pdf. By the Pi sector, I meant an amorphous space between the traditional NGO sector— the so-called  third sector—and what is sometimes labeled as  fourth sector: myriad informal activities deliberately differentiating themselves from any established institutions: squats, activist groups, self-learning initiatives, etc.
  8. See Jakub Szreder, Politicising ‘independent’ curatorial practice under neoliberalism: critical responses to the structural pressures of project-making (PhD thesis), Loughborough University 2015, available at: https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/dspace-jspui/handle/2134/18484. For a more detailed, critical discussion of this kind of opportunism, see Vlad Morariu’s text in this issue. Agreeing fully with Morariu’s objections, I would add an accelerationist perspective, according to which social and political progress should not be based on the destruction of existing apparatus but on redirecting their functioning beyond the logic of capital accumulation. To put it in more concrete terms: there would be nothing wrong with the project-based system if unconditional basic income was there as a guarantee of our material survival.
  9. The precise field of our activity evolved over time. Between 2010 and 2012, we focused on the political economy of social creativity, collaborating quite a lot with the academic journal Praktyka Teoretyczna. In 2013 and 2014, we conducted a vast empirical research into the working conditions in cultural institutions, focusing not only on the fate of artists, as it is often the case, but on other positions as well: coordinators, curators, and supporting personnel.
  10. Joy Forever: The Political Economy of Social Creativity, eds. Michał Kozłowski, Agnieszka Kurant, Jan Sowa (redaktor prowadzący), Krystian Szadkowski, Kuba Szreder (London: MayFly Books, 2014).
  11. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959/2000).

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