Disobedience VS Transgression

Salvatore Iaconesi
4 min readApr 9, 2017

A few days ago, the Disobedience Award was launched by MIT’s Media Lab.

The prize will collect people’s submissions about exemplary acts of civil disobedience which have brought benefit to society by supporting the principles of non-violence, creativity, courage and responsibility, and will award 250 thousand dollars to the one which is deemed to be the most significant, according to the opinion of a jury.

It is only apparently peculiar for an institution such as MIT to deal with the topic of Disobedience.

If we look closely, we will find many hints of why MIT would deal with such a theme. In this sense, Joichi “Joi” Ito’s approach is exemplary. Joi Ito is the director of the MIT Media Lab, and has been the Chairman of Creative Commons and a serial entrepreneur and activist who has been part of some of the Web’s most interesting operations.

Joi Ito is not new to the theme. In 2014 he publicly demonstrated his interest in “anti-disciplinariety”, which is the attitude of avoiding to framing one’s actions into a particular discipline, or even in a combination of different existing disciplines. But, more interestingly, to create new languages, architectures and methods.

In 2016 this approach has led to the creation of JoDS, the Journal of Design and Sciences.

Using the words from its introduction, JoDS

“captures the antidisciplinary ethos of the MIT Media Lab. Like the Lab, it opens new connections between science and design, encouraging discourse that breaks down the barriers between traditional academic disciplines”.

These elements help us understand how the Disobedience Award initiative represents a continuity in MIT’s strategies, but it still does not tell us anything about why it exists.

Disobedience — in the sense of Civil Disobedience — is a term whose origin is in Thoreau’s essay, and which has found its natural outburst in the United States of the ’60s and ’70s, the ones of the contestation, of the revolution, of the protests against Vietnam.

Starting from those years, (Civil) Disobedience has become one of the symbol-words of smart, intellectual, committed revolt.

Let’s analyze it.


To Obey. From Ob-Udire. Ob, which means forward, ahead. And Udire, which means to listen.

To Obey: to put forward what we have heard from others. To execute others’ commandments, to submit to the will of others.

And, as a result: Dis-obey, Dis-Ob-Udire: not executing others’ commandments.

This is a very polarizing word: there is an I and an Other, and the I confronts the Other directly: however non-violent it is, it’s a fight, an opposition.


Now, let’s analyze another word: Transgression.

Transgression. From Trans-Gredire. Trans: on the other side, traversing. And Gredire, which means step, as in the ladder and as in walking. Which leads to: to go beyond, further, to overcome limits and boundaries.

With her Excess Space theory, Elizabeth Grosz says that transgressors do not fight boundaries, they recognize them and, by doing so, they move them.

Transgression is not oppositive. It is not a dis, or a non. It does not have an enemy.

Transgression is to go beyond, not against.

The Status Quo

If in Disobedience focus is on the status quo, on order, on commandments, which have to be negated, to which one must oppose and negate, in Transgression it is on traversing, in going beyond, moving, changing the cards on the table, the scenario, the landscape.

Disobedience, today, recalls Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s troublemakers, of when, in 1982, he wrote the “Industrialization of the Mind”.

When all industries become cultural, immaterial industries (like today), they suffer a paradox: their product, conscience, is a social product and, thus, they cannot produce it themselves; they can only try to induce it, and reproduce it.

In this paradox, Enzensberger highlighted the role of the troublemakers, the undisciplined, of the disobedient: it is them, among few others, who can stimulate the creation of conscience, its production.

To solve the paradox Enzensberger highlighted how the industrial complex only had one way forward: to co-opt them, to hire them, to put them on a stage, to award them prizes.

Disobedience, today, is the opposition to the status quo with a good Venture Capitalist on your side, to be ready to catch the opportunity to lead in new markets, disrupting the competition.

On the other hand, Transgression is about traversing, strolling, climbing over the fence, for the pleasure of it, without opposition, defeat, fight; for the desire to overcome, go beyond, discover, and to have experience of the Other.

Disobedience is work. Transgression is desire.

But work is disappearing, replaced by robots and artificial intelligences.

What we’re progressively left with is imagination, dream, boredom, time.

It is here, in this difference, that maybe one of the principal challenges of our times lays: in this challenge between disobedience and transgression, between this civil and industrious opposition which becomes an instrument for the market in order to defeat the status quo, to be able to bring up another one, and the capability to transgress, traverse, to access Other logics, according a philosophy of co-existence instead of dualism, contrapposition, and spectacle.