Against Innovation: Compromised Institutional Agency and Acts of Custodianship

Nenad Romic, Tomislav Medak

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    In this essay we reflect on the historic crisis of the university and the public library as two modern institutions tasked with providing universal access to knowledge and education. This crisis, precipitated by pushes to marketization, technological innovation and financialization in universities and libraries, has prompted the emergence of shadow libraries as collective disobedient practices of maintenance and custodianship. In their illegal acts of reversing property into commons, commodification into care, we detect a radical gesture comparable to that of the historical avant-garde. To better understand how the university and the public library ended up in this crisis, here we re-trace their development starting with the capitalist modernization around the turn of the 20th century. It is this period of accelerated technological innovation that also birthed historical avant-garde. Drawing on Perry Anderson’s ‘Modernity and Revolution’, we interpret that uniquely creative period as a period of ambivalence toward an ‘unpredictable political future’ that was open to diverging routes of social development. Comparably to the avant-garde, the university and the public library tried to shape that future by inserting themselves into processes of social transformation. Following Anderson’s conjunctural analysis, we situate the later re-emergence of avant-garde practices in the 1960s as an attempt to subvert the separations that a mature capitalism imposes on social reality. In the present, we claim, the radicality equivalent to the avant-garde is to divest from the disruptive dynamic of innovation and focus on the repair, maintenance and care of the broken social world left in techno-capitalism’s wake. Comparably, the university and the public library should be able to claim the radical those gesture of slowdown and custodianship too, against the imperative of innovation imposed on them by policymakers and managers. They are able to do so by providing infrastructures that can reduce insecurities resulting from precarity and effectively support structural change in the face of the double crisis of growth and environment. To do so, these institutions need to dare to disobey. Part of that disobedience is supporting ‘shadow’ access to knowledge with all the institutional conflicts and challenges that this entails.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)345-368
    JournalEphemera: Theory and Politics in Organization
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2019


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