Whatever happened to knowledge as, well, knowledge?

Robin Peckam of Saamlung directed my attention to a recent article, The 20-Kilometer University: Knowledge as Infrastructure. The article presents Urbanus’ proposal to turn the 20 km corridor from Luohu to Shenzhen University into an open university campus, with university functions distributed throughout the city. The design aims to create an unconventional civic center in which “learning” is a metaphor for civic engagement or inhabiting the city. Inquiring minds want to know, what’s wrong with that?

According to the authors, their design offers a new understanding of the relationship between knowledge and the city. They define knowledge as:

A mental map of the known world, is as much a mirror of our own conceptions as it is a description of reality.

Their goal is to create a university that is as complex and nuanced as a contemporary city:

In conceiving an infrastructure of knowledge, we argue for a reformulation of knowledge that moves by way of a stricture between the complexities of human life and the complexities of the knowledge archive.

In order to dissolve the deep fissures – social and architectural – between Shenzhen’s diverse neighborhoods and malls, urban villages and industrial parks, the authors propose installing “open source infrastructure”. They envision a series of linked spaces, including classrooms and research spaces, libraries and laboratories, in addition to dormitories, cafeterias, and laundry facilities threading through the 20-kilometer corridor. They also propose to thematically integrate different areas into the university system. For example, Huaqiangbei, the former center of electronics production and sales would become a design campus, while the OCT theme park area would focus on ecology.

The Urbanus proposal aims to democratize and harmonize knowledge. On the one hand, the authors accept the proposition that “knowledge is power”. Consequently, their design grapples with the idea that if access to knowledge is democratized, then society becomes more democratic. On the other hand, the authors argue that knowledge/power is maintained through social divisions and spatial barriers. Thus, their idea of an open campus aims to provide spaces for sociality and communication, creating more organic (or in their lexicon “ecological”) forms of knowledge/society. In other words, the proposal imagines a shift from knowledge as an expression of power to knowledge as a medium of social engagement.

Here’s the rub: This isn’t a living proposal. Indeed, these debates had more or less finished by 2002, when construction on Shenzhen’s University Town (大学城) began in Xili. By 2008, construction was advanced enough that professors had been hired and students recruited for the various universities. Indeed, Shenzhen’s University Town is the location of Southern Institute of Technology, the Municipality’s effort to open a college on the liberal arts model. Moreover, branches of several Hong Kong universities have been located near Shenzhen University’s southern campus, and commercial laboratories have been opened in other Districts. And yet. This 2011 article is based on a 2009 Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale exhibit; it was out of date in 2009, so why rehash this information in 2011?

This is where and why it becomes apparent that the proposal uses knowledge as a metaphor for a more ideal society, but not actually as a word meaning, well, knowledge in the more traditional sense. In the proposal, each of the five knowledge areas is represented by images of people “learning” or “researching”. However, these images are in fact pictures of people conducting daily tasks, which are presented as instances of knowledge appropriation or use. Thus, pedestrians on the Huaqiangbei pedestrian street illustrate “design” knowledge, fishing is an example of “environmental” knowledge, skateboarders show off ecological knowledge, white-collar workers walking on an imaginary stairway in front of the new Koolhaus stock exchange exhibit knowledge about “money”, while swimming in an imaginary pool becomes “body” knowledge.

If the article aimed to rethink how we integrate learning and research into urban fabrics, then it would have been necessary to include the historical context of planning Shenzhen’s University City. However, from the article as written, I don’t know anything more about Shenzhen’s actual knowledge infrastructure than I did before I read the article. On the other hand, if the purpose of the article was to raise awareness about Shenzhen’s need for better and more equitable public spaces, surely the authors could have made that argument by calling a public space a public space. Again, as written, the article didn’t teach me anything about public space in Shenzhen that I didn’t already know or that couldn’t be learned by walking the streets.

All this to say, that having read The 20 Kilometer University, I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with the authors’ critical impulse, but not actually knowing what their critical point is. As it stands, I agree with both the article’s stated intention (to rethink the relationship between knowledge infrastructure and the city) and the article’s implicit argument (to improve and democratize Shenzhen’s public spaces). Nevertheless, I left the article uncertain about what the authors may or may not think about these issues. And that’s a problem precisely because one of the functions of knowledge as knowledge is to clarify rather than to confuse. It’s also a problem because once again it illuminates the limits to peer review when our peers are simply people like us, begging the question, what do the editors Theory Culture & Society actually know or bothered to learn about Shenzhen?

3 thoughts on “Whatever happened to knowledge as, well, knowledge?

  1. My major grip with the proposal when it was presented during the biennial back in 2009 was then equally valid in relation to the CCTV tower, Crystal Island, and so on: it uses conceptual sexiness (equitable distribution of knowledge, radical revision of pedagogical space, etc.) translated into visually attractive renderings to bury its insidious social and ideological effects. After all, this was essentially an attempt to re-brand the state education system with no substantive change in teaching, learning, or research through spatial reorganization that would remove education from the human scale and displace it into a nebulous “cloud” territory impervious to the cognitive mapping techniques current available to Shenzhen residents, not to mention the fact that many of its individual nodes were planned to replace areas of the city that, architecturally speaking, had much more to offer–urban villages, outmoded shopping districts, past visions of the future.

  2. Hi Robin, thank you for sketching out your argument. Yes, China is undergoing all sorts of rebranding and the means of rebranding remains centralized. Years ago, one sociological research topic was how many of the form Propaganda Bureaus were reorienting themselves as advertising agencies. Still part of the Government apparatus, but also competing for commercial campaigns with privileged access to media outlets. The fact that all cultural production (and not just urban planning) remains embedded in the state apparatus is the point, I think, where Urbanus and other large, possibly progressive (or at least having progressive rhetorics) falter; they need to work with the government. One way of facilitating those relationships is to target government targets, which as you mention, include: urban villages, outmoded shopping districts, and older danwei residential areas, such as my current neighborhood, which lies in the shadow of “6 Star Dubai Luxury Housing” if their advertising is to be believed!

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