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A Hierarchy of Networks?, or, Geo-Culturally Differentiated Networks and the Limits of Collaboration

Earlier this year the edu-factory organizers invited me to comment on the passage from hierarchisation to autonomous institutions. Indeed, I think it appropriate to maintain the connection between hierarchy and autonomy. This constitutive tension is apparent in the political economy and social-technical dimensions of both open source and proprietary software that provides the architecture for communicative relations. And it manifests on multiple fronts in the modalities of organization that attend the creation of autonomous spaces and times of radical or alternative research and education projects, experiments and agendas. There is no absolute autonomy, but rather a complex field of forces and relations that hold the potential for partial autonomy, or ‘the difference which makes a difference’ (Bateson). How to move and direct such complexities in such a way that make possible autonomous education is what I understand to be the program of edu-factory.

And in such guidance – a combination of collective investigation and top-down decision-making – one finds the movement between hierarchy and autonomy. This is a matter of governance for networks. Protocols come in to play, and dispute, disagreement and alliance shape the culture of networks in singular ways. At the technical level there are some near universal features of networks: TCP/IP, location of root-servers according to the geo-politics of information, adoption of open source and/or proprietary software, allocation of domain names, etc. But as the debates around the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (2003-2005) amply demonstrated, it quickly becomes analytically and politically implausible to separate the technical aspects of information from social and cultural conditions. Autonomous education that makes use of ICTs will always be situated within a geography of uneven information. Hierarchies will always prevail.

The possibility of transnational collaboration that aspires to autonomous education thus becomes a problem of translation, as Jon Solomon and others have discussed in rich ways on this list. There will be no ‘construction of an autonomous global university’. How, then, might autonomous education initiatives engage in scalar transformation in such a way that makes transnational relations possible? This seems to be the ambition of the edu-factory. But what is the desire for transnational connection? Why not keep things local, rooted in the geographies of the city, neighborhood or village? Who is the subject of, let us say, not a global but transnational education project that resides sufficiently outside the corporate university?

Part of the brilliance of the edu-Summit held in Berlin last May was to finally break with the anti- or alter-globalization cycle of staging protests according to the diary of the WTO, G8, etc.[1] Autonomy begins with invention that is co-emergent with conflict, crisis, frustration, curiosity, depression, wild utopian desires, boredom, etc. The sites of conflict are multiple: individual, institutional, social/collective, corporeal, affective, ecological, cultural, disciplinary, geopolitical, governmental, etc. Underscored by heterolingual tensions and incommensurabilities, the edu-factory organizers’ call for and presupposition of ‘the realization of our collective project’ is nothing short of complex (a problematic acknowledged by edu-factory organizers and participants). But one needs to take care not to allow complexity to displace the conflict that takes place in occupying a line or position. This is the space of the political.

What is the situation of autonomous institutions? Paolo Do: ‘Talking about an autonomous university is to find a starting-point to attack and to occupy the spaces belonging to the enemy’.[2] Such an approach is a reactionary one if it is to be reduced to a takeover, say, of the institutional spaces of the university. The conservatism in such a move lies in a responsive mechanism determined by the space and time of ‘the enemy’, or hegemonic institution (the university as we know it). To simply occupy the spaces of the enemy is to repeat the failure Foucault saw of revolution: the end-result is a reproduction of the same. This amounts to a reformist agenda and, in the case of the transformation of universities over the past 20 or so years, succeeds in the production and proliferation of managerial subjectivities.

There are, however, different registers of occupation, and I will assume this to be the interest of Paolo. A good example can be found in the case of domestic workers in Hong Kong and their invention of new institutional forms that arise through the practice of occupation. The potential for commonalities across labouring bodies is undoubtedly a complex and often fraught subjective and institutional process or formation. The fractured nature of working times, places and practices makes political organization highly difficult. Where this does happen, there are often ethnic affinities coalesced around specific sectors – here, we are thinking of examples such as the ‘Justice for Janitors’ movement in the U.S., a largely Latino immigrant experience of self-organization.[3]

In Hong Kong, domestic workers gather on Sundays within non-spaces such as road fly-overs, under pedestrian bridges and in public parks. The domestics are female workers for the most part, initially from the Philippines with a new wave of workers in recent years from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.[4] And as cultural critic Helen Grace notes, ‘there are also mainland migrant workers with limited rights, working in all sorts of low-paid jobs, moving backwards and forwards and living with great precarity’.[5]

The domestic workers transform the status of social-ethnic borders by occupying spaces from which they are usually excluded due to the spatial and temporal constraints of labour. Sunday is the day off for domestic workers, and they don’t want to stay at home, nor do their employers wish to have them about the house. The Norman Foster designed headquarters for HSBC bank located in Central district nicely encapsulates the relation between domestic workers and capital and the disconnection between state and citizen. This bank is just one of many instances found globally where the corporate sector makes available public spaces in the constitution of an ‘entrepreneurial city’.[6]

Yet the actions of undocumented workers mark a distinction from the entrepreneurial city and its inter-scalar strategies of capital accumulation in the form of property development and business, financial, IT and tourist services. With a first floor of public space, workers engage in praying and study groups reading the Koran, singing songs, labour organization, cutting hair and dancing while finance capital is transferred in floors above the floating ceiling of the HSBC bank. Used in innovative ways that conflict with or at least depart from how these spaces usually function, there is a correspondence here with what Grace calls a ‘horizontal monumentality’, ‘making highly visible – and public – a particular aspect of otherwise privatized labour and domestic space’.[7]

Not described in tourist guides and absent from policy and corporate narratives of entrepreneurial innovation and development, the domestic worker is a public without a discourse. For many Hong Kong residents their visibility is undesirable, yet these workers make a significant contribution to the city’s imaginary: their visibility on Sundays signals that the lustre of entrepreneurialism is underpinned by highly insecure and low-paid forms of work performed by non-citizens. The domestic worker also instantiates less glamorous but nonetheless innovative forms of entrepreneurialism. An obvious example here consists of the small business initiatives such as restaurants, deli’s and small-scale repairs and manufacturing that some migrant workers go on to develop, making way for new intakes of domestic workers in the process and redefining the ethnic composition of the city. Such industriousness provides an important service to local residents and contributes in key ways to the social-cultural fabric of the city.

The competition of urban space – particularly the use of urban space – by the domestic worker also comprises an especially innovative act: the invention of a new institutional form, one that we call the ‘organized network’. The transnational dimension of the domestic workers is both external and internal. External, in their return home every year or two for a week or so – a passage determined by the time of labour and festivity (there is little need for domestics during the Chinese New Year). External, in their return home every year or two for a week or so – a passage determined by the time of labour and festivity (there is little need for domestics during the Chinese New Year). Internal, with respect to the composition of the group itself. In this case, there exists ‘a multiplicity of overlapping sites that are themselves internally heterogeneous’, as noted by Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson in their posting to the list.[8] Here, I am thinking of the borders of sociality that compose the gathering of domestics in one urban setting or another – as mentioned above, some choose to sing, engage in labour organization, hold study groups, etc. Ethnic and linguistic differences also underscore the internal borders of the group.

Can the example of domestic workers in Hong Kong be understood in terms of a transnational organized network? I suspect not. The domestics only meet in particular times and spaces (Sunday in urban non-spaces). Such a form of localization obviously does not lend itself to transnational connection. Perhaps NGOs and social movements that rally around the conditions of domestic workers communicate within a transnational network of organizations engaged in similar advocacy work. But if this is the case, then we are speaking of a different register of subjectivity and labour – one defined by the option of expanded choice and self-determination.

In this sense, we can identify a hierarchy of networks whose incommensurabilities are of a scalar nature: local as distinct from transnational. For domestic workers, much of this has to do with external conditions over which they have little control: Sunday is the day off work, exile from their country of origin is shaped by lack of economic options and the forces of global capital, their status as undocumented or temporary workers prevents equivalent freedom of movement and political rights afforded by Hong Kong citizens, etc. But within these constraints, invention is possible.

Part one of this second round of discussions on the edu-factory mailing list identified many of the conditions at work that shape the differential experience of labour and practices of education. How to make the transition to institution strikes me as the task now at hand.

Parts of this text are drawn from a forthcoming article: Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter, ‘Precarity as a Political Concept, or, Fordism as Exception’, Theory, Culture & Society 25.7 (2008).

1. Summit: Non-Aligned Initiatives in Education Culture, Berlin, 24-28 May, 2007,

2. Paolo Do, ‘Open University’, posting to edu-factory mailing list, 14 January, 2008,

3. See Florian Schneider, ‘Organizing the Unorganizables’, 2002,

4. See Nicole Constable, ‘At Home but Not at Home: Filipina Narratives of Ambivalent Returns’, Cultural Anthropology 14.2 (1999): 203-228 and Lisa Law, ‘Defying Disappearance: Cosmopolitan Public Spaces in Hong Kong’, Urban Studies 39.9 (2002): 1625-1646. [both articles available online – do a search]

5. Helen Grace, personal email, 15 January, 2008.

6. See Bob Jessop and Ngai-Ling Sum, ‘An Entrepreneurial City in Action: Hong Kong’s Emerging Strategies in and for (Inter-)Urban Competition’, (no date),

7. Helen Grace, ‘Monuments and the Face of Time: Distortions of Scale and Asynchrony in Postcolonial Hong Kong’, Postcolonial Studies 10.4 (2007): 469.

8. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, ‘Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor’, transversal (2008),

English version of: ‘Una gerarchia di reti? ovvero, reti geo-culturalmente differenziate e i limiti della collaborazione’, in edu-factory collective (eds) L’università globale: Il nuovo mercato del sapere, Roma: Manifestolibri, 2008.

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