Interdisciplinarity and the Political Imperative of Research: An Interview with Daniela Gandorfer, Part I

Specializing in legal thought and critical theory, Daniela Gandorfer is a graduate of the doctoral program in Princeton’s Department of Comparative Literature, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Santa Cruz, and co-director and head of research at the Logische Phantasie Lab (LoPh). LoPh, a research collective recently founded by Princeton alumni and current students, describes itself as a “comprehensive research agency that actively challenges injustices resulting from political, legal, economic, social, physical, and environmental entanglements by means of specific investigations.” I want to thank former PCUR correspondent Rafi Lehman, now the Development Coordinator at LoPh, for putting me in touch with the research collective’s team.

Over email and Zoom, I was able to talk to Daniela about the critical methods employed by LoPh, its relationship with the established academy, and the benefits and limits of an interdisciplinary research approach.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Below is part one of a two-part interview.

Daniela Gandorfer, co-director and head of research at LoPh.

AI: Could you speak more about how and why Lo-Ph was founded?

DG: As simple as this may sound, LoPh really grew from an awareness that as university students and scholars, we have between us a range of skills that are both wide and nuanced, as gathered from our various formalized educations across a range of disciplines. Crucially however, we also realized that such skills and knowledges of the world are, on one hand, not divorced from our respective and situated life experiences beyond campus borders, and on the other, have enormous potential when collectively shared and leveraged.

Going through graduate school taught us the limits and possibilities of what is considered academic research and thought. These limits have become especially problematic in the light of the 2016 US election and its consequences, with police and civil violence against Black, Indigenous, Brown, and immigrant lives growing as well as with other injustices resulting from global warming and the COVID-19 outbreak increasing. In fact, it was in the early thick of the pandemic when the other co-directors and I determined it was time to reach out and act on the back of long months of planning and discussion. We all have long been invested in questions of injustice(s) in our own forms of research and knowledge production, but were increasingly convinced that effectually challenging injustices in real time and in the world simply had to go well beyond writing papers and working in solitude. 

LoPh, then, was founded upon the conviction that higher education, the diverse and valuable skills learned over years of training in reading, expressing, analysing, and establishing connections across fields, histories, scales, and matter(s), ought to be committed to an investigative attention to the growing injustices on the ground. This involves rigorous scientific, empirical inquiry, and creative analysis of specific injustices as well as collaborations across disciplinary and contextual boundaries. If research wants to matter in the collective struggle against injustices resulting from, for example, racism, fascism, or from the consequences of global warming and resource extraction which are, as we know, unequally distributed, then we have to do away with the idea of the individual genius, the ground-breaking book, or the singular discipline that holds the key to all our problems. Injustices affect unequally, but are nevertheless a collective problem— and they have to be addressed collectively. So this is not only how LoPh was ‘launched,’ or began, so to speak, but also how and why it is conceived of and operates something like a ‘lab.’

AI: What current projects are in the works?

DG: Currently LoPh is conducting two investigations that we can share details about:  

“Gas Exchanges and the Right to Breathe” investigates the historical, material, legal, socio-political, and scientific conditions that either make possible or prohibit the act of breathing. In doing so, this investigation examines the respiratory processes in human and non-human bodies, the highly gendered and racialized inequalities resulting from air pollution, lethal acts of police and military violence, the commodification of oxygen both on Earth and in outer space, and the politicization and appropriation of air—itself a particular mixture of gases—in relation to COVID-19. The investigation reveals and critically challenges the structure, dynamics, and histories of what we tentatively call “a right to breathe,” to which we ultimately seek to propose a legal draft. 

We have also just started our second investigation, “Movement and Organ(ization): U.S. American Fascism and the Criminalization of Resistance”, which is a close examination of the legal and political instruments actively shaping and fostering fascist and white-supremacist structures. It focuses on both legislation, such as the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), and on the legal and political tools increasingly being mobilized to target BLM and anti-fascist activists. In doing so, LoPh also aims to offer an alternative understanding of organized crime.

However, LoPh’s work is not restricted to the investigations. I am, for example, currently teaching, in collaboration with LoPh, a seminar at the University for Applied Arts, Vienna. In addition, various publications on matterphorics and matterphorical case studies are forthcoming soon. Among them a Theory & Event special issue on “Matterphorical” (Johns Hopkins Press, January 2021), with contributions from distinguished scholars from different fields and disciplines (such as anthropology, quantum physics, architecture, literature studies, political and media theory, sound studies, law, and more), and “Matterphorics: On the Laws of Theory” (Gandorfer, Duke University Press).

AI: Lo-Ph seems committed to a very method-conscious, intentional approach to research. In the collective’s description on its website, two features in particular stood out to me: firstly, the idea of “matterphorical case studies”, defined as “a mode of investigation that seeks to reveal and understand the complex political, legal, physical, environmental, economic, societal entanglements that produce a specific injustice”; and secondly, the very name of the collective— logische phantasie, inspired by a kind of journalistic praxis emphasizing material engagement.

Could you explain why these philosophies of research are central to Lo-Phi’s mission? Is there some kind of gap you intend Lo-Ph to fill within the current world of academic research— perhaps a gap of material or political urgency?

DG: Yes, thank you for pointing that out. This is very important to us. You are on the mark concerning this gap of material and political urgency. As mentioned before, LoPh grew out of an attempt to find ways of using our academic and non-academic research skills to actively challenge not only ideas and theories, but material and political injustices taking place in the world (which is always both physical and political). Matterphorics, as practice, does not follow the assumption that thinking, ideas, and concepts are immaterial and abstract, but rather calls our attention to the fact that those are phenomena in the world. This has major consequences for how we conduct research and also for how we see our role as academics and researchers! 

Matterphorical case studies, our method, require us to understand how every injustice is specific (i.e. not just comparable to other injustices) and complexly entangled. Let me give you an example: In order to think about a ‘right to breathe,’ we first have to investigate what breathing is (namely not simply a respiratory process), rather than assuming a universal definition that fits all contexts. The violence that makes breathing impossible for Downwinders in New Mexico affected by nuclear radiation from the Trinity Tests is different from the one that killed George Floyd, which is again different from the respiratory issues suffered by low-wage workers burning e-waste in India, and so on. The entanglements of breathing crosses scales: from the nuclear, cellular respiratory, and molecular bonding, to police violence, air pollution, global pandemics, and Elon Musk’s dream of creating an atmosphere on Mars.

And they also cross temporalities and spatialities: When exactly did breathing become impossible for Barbara Dawson, and how is that particular moment entangled with the histories of slavery, racism, and police violence in the US? Matterphorical case studies investigate every concept as a complex entanglement across scales, temporalities, and spatialities. This is as much an ethics of research as it is a question of academic rigor. Here is where logische phantasie, a concept practiced and coined by the anti-fascist journalist Egon Erwin Kisch in the 1920s, comes in. What it requires is both rigorous empirical research into issues on the ground, so to speak, and also an acknowledgement of that fact that sense-making is always also an ethical and political matter. 

AI: This phrasing of “sense-making” is quite striking… In your emphasis on going beyond concepts that presume themselves to be universal and trying to find the specific, incomparable things about the subjects of your research, how do you avoid getting bogged down in the particular? Especially with your emphasis on the empirical, is there a way to avoid falling into a sort of vulgar positivism? When you literally make or produce sense, is it something beyond just description?

DG: I think you are really pointing to the most difficult challenge of the whole endeavor. There are a few answers. First of all, everything we do builds on a long history of all kinds of theories and philosophies. One is feminist science studies. One of the important issues addressed there was the question what “objectivity” is. It challenged the assumption (in science and philosophy) that objectivity can be measured somewhere from the outside. One scholar we rely on is the philosopher and quantum physicist Karen Barad and their “agential realism.” Barad, building on Niels Bohr, shows not only that object and the apparatus of observation cannot be separated, but also that objectivity is an ontological concern: “Objectivity means being accountable for marks on bodies, that is, specific materializations in their differential mattering.” If we accept that, and if we accept that every process of sense-making knowledge production alters the knowledge that is produced as well as what produces knowledge, then objectivity gets a little bit more complicated than simply a judgement from the outside.

Where Egon Erwin Kisch comes in, then, is that very early on he was someone rigorously producing journalistic knowledge on the ground. He was also socialist, and he tried to visit working-class communities; he was very much against this “armchair journalism.” But then— and you pointed to this— even if you collect this empirical data, you would never get the full picture. There will always be little points that need to be connected. In order to do that ethically and with a sense for social justice, logische phantasie is needed. For us, the question is, what are the ethics that play into the connection of those points that we cannot know? For us this is an explicitly anti-fascist endeavor, which doesn’t mean that we fabricate narratives, but that we look closely how injustices are produced, across scales, by capitalism, racism, fascism.

AI: Is that ethical or political imperative, in a loose sense, a sort of binding universal here? 

DG: I think it is. The interest is also linked to the matter(s) and bodies on the ground. We investigate processes of (un)mattering, in its double meaning. For example, when a Black individual is killed by a police officer, then the question of “making sense” is not so much to reconstruct whether or not legally the police officer was within the realm of the legitimate (for law, too, is all but neutral, but entangled with violence), but the question would be: What made this death, this killing, this injustice possible, and where did the injustice start (usually not just at the moment of the police encounter)?

Now one can argue: What is objective? Is it the law? Are we already choosing sides? I think this is what we mean by ethics; we look at the most vulnerable bodies and most vulnerable matters and how they come to (or not come) to matter. These concerns have to be in and of the world; every concept has to be. 

Part II of this interview is coming soon, in which Daniela and I continue to discuss the relationship of LoPh to standard research practice in the academy, the meaning of interdisciplinarity, and more.

–Alec Israeli, Humanities Correspondent