All entries for May 2015

May 16, 2015

The Future of Interdisciplinary Research – the IAS at the Shard

Warwick staff members with connections to the Warwick Institute of Advanced Study [IAS] were invited to this half-day symposium on Friday 15th May, held in the Warwick space at the spectacular Shard building in London Bridge. The Shard is becoming a showcase for the highest levels of Warwick teaching and research (and, I must say, whose rates for room rental are several stratospheres above any Humanities budget I have ever seen). This half-day event was, in part, a symposium that celebrated the first eight years of the IAS, and which gathered an audience to hear about recently funded projects in interdisciplinary research, particularly from younger scholars at Warwick (mostly IAS post-doc Fellows). With luminaries like Sir George Cox present, as well as notable interdisciplinary scholars from other universities, the ensuing Q&A and discussion was fairly substantial and the event well-worth attending (not least the lunch – what one would expect at a place like the Shard. I'm definitely going back).

IAS Event 15th May

What is the role of an IAS? It exists to promote interdisciplinarity, and also cultivate higher levels of exchange where regular faculty and departmental contexts are not effective. Considering the worldwide intellectual impact of the famous Princeton University Institute for Advanced Study (which I visited briefly when on a week’s residency at the Princeton Centre for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies in 2006 and again in 2008), the aims of the IAS project are surely compelling. But why is 'interdisciplinarity' still at issue? As Provost Professor Stuart Croft said in his introduction, there is something slightly anachronistic about the very term. We have, for decades, been discussing cross-disciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdiscilinarity and a whole range of other configurations, so why is 'interdisciplinarity' still at issue? And as Michael Hatt (Art History) said to me the day before the event, as we waited for his taxi to the rail station: the major question facing us is surely, ‘what is disciplinarity’ – what was it, ever, particularly in the Humanities?

I was, as an undergrad through the first half of the 1990s, repeatedly told by professors, and with some conviction, that within a decade all disciplinary boundaries (and their Victorian obsession with the individualist book and article-formats of presenting and delivering research) would have dissolved. This seemingly water-tight forecast – made self-evident by the authoritative writings of a generation of anti-foundationalist anti-Humanists from Habermas to Rorty, Foucault to Derrida, to Jameson and Eagleton, Lyotard to Rancière – was, at the time, indisputable. And how it deceived an entire generation of undergraduates. Their introduction to the world of research started with an ethical obligation to ‘critique the Canon’ (assuming they knew what the Canon was, which most didn’t) and a new rule of multi-perspectival interdisciplinary ‘approaches’ to everything -- to life and the meaning of the universe, and especially your undergrad essays, which in practice meant a kind of low-intensity cultural studies (a cod sociology without particular regard for methods). As for me, I feel grateful for catching the last days of some marginalised Germanic, right of centre, traditionalists. Otherwise -- your right -- I feel conned.

Well, not exactly; more accurately, I feel intrigued and fascinating in equal measure as I look back at the decades in which interdisciplinarity was a 'politics' of the institutional mediation of knowledge-construction, stimulated by the emergence of new discourses in social epistemology and sociology of knowledge, which in turn had an impact on the professors that taught me critical theory in my postgrad days. Why does intellectual history takes the form it does? It was during these postgrad days that Harvard published Randall Collins’s monumental The Sociology of Philosophies, which I still find utterly fascinating for just these reasons.

The IAS symposium opened with four statements from a panel of special guests, including Pete Churchill of the Joint Research Centre of the European Union, Rick Rylance of the AHRC and Jane Elliot of the ESRC, all largely celebrating the university sector’s collective advance in interdisciplinary research. And yet, while the symposium remained good natured and calm, the questions and comments that followed were not so taken by this institutionalised optimism (Oliver Bennett should have been present to throw some light on this).

Indeed: look at the rise of the natural sciences in the last 15 years, and the re-validation of the naturalism and empiricism so torn apart by critical theory between 1940 and 1980. Look at the unhindered rise of neo-positivism and the supremacy of ‘data’ and ‘evidence’ in defining ‘truth’. Indeed, in my undergrad days, any student naively using the words ‘truth’, ‘fact’ or ‘evidence’ would be subject to the scorn of the class, an immediate target for at least three angry quotations by the tutor from Nietzsche’s Gay Science, and without any possible retort of prejudice, marked down on the next essay.

How has neo-positivism (for Adorno, the epistemological basis of fascism) returned with a vengeance, and has become the modus operandi of the ‘knowledge society’? It is used by university managers as a template for all academic research, evaluation and management; for admissions policies, appointment policies, subject and faculty divisions of the University system, not least the REF, HEFCE and the funding agencies. The panel didn’t so effectively respond to some of these critical issues. Yet the panel did indeed offer some apposite insights and observations. Rick Rylance celebrated how the one recurring theme right now among policy wonks in Whitehall is interdisciplinarity, and in turn this offers a ‘huge’ opportunity for the academy (given how Whitehall is the last place in which models of interdisciplinarity will, or could, be innovated). However, here I could not help but think of the Whitehall revolution in 1998 and New Labour’s 'joined up policy making' and post-Major ‘anti-departmentalism’: an eternal return of the same, to (mis)quote Neitzsche. Rylance was optimistic that the sheer demands of the ‘knowledge economy’ have forced Whitehall to invest in interdisciplinarity, and in turn, research funding agencies will become more interconnected. We are truly entering a new age of the reengineering of the funding infrastructure for research, with glorious global horizons appearing in the process.

Inspiration indeed. As he noted himself, there remains a huge resistance to interdisciplinary – a lack of investment among individual academics for the necessary patterns intellectual interaction, new project formations or dynamic group work models and so on. However, it became clear to me that the disciplines as traditionally conceived were not, on the whole, regarded as a ‘problem’ or in any way bound up in the conditions for this ‘resistance’ to interdisciplinarity. For most of this event, the message being put out was that we must remain concerned for the essential and unashamed role of ‘disciplines’ – for intellectual training, academic skills, and the definition of research questions and problems. Disciplinarity is presupposed by interdisciplinarity, and so should remain the bedrock of academic life. Yet – and this was the challenge, obviating the potential conservatism such a position might entail – all disciplinarity should be perpetually subject to interdisciplinarity. All disciplines must be perpetually open to the challenges, innovations, interpretations and historicisation of their research questions and problems, and maintain a cognisance of a range of possible interpretations and outcomes. Yet, surely, said a colleague from CIM, we need institutional frameworks that facilitate this. The scenarios celebrated by the panel reflects a sector that currently favours ‘smooth’ innovations, not the kinds of friction and rapid mobility of real interdisciplinarity, which are really needed for substantial transformation. For this, universities should encourage multiple ‘joint’ appointments – where academics belong to two or more institutions (he remains with Columbia, but currently here in CIM). Material conditions and the problem of labour, indeed.

Another interesting viewpoint emerged from panel member and media don, Prof. Sarah Churchwell (UEA), who called for an interdisciplinarity of Intellectual Pluralism. This would necessitate our working at a critical ‘generalism’ and an acceptance of the generalist, not just specialists. In this line of thinking, we need to find ways of formulating particular research questions in terms ‘big enough’ to solicit a response from a range of disciplines across faculties. She cited Homi Bhabha’s recent seminar series at Harvard on the classical theme of ‘The Good Life’, inviting scholars from all disciplines to contribute. Churchwell’s contribution to the debate – if I am accurate here -- followed her assertion that the ‘inter’ dimension of interdisciplinarity challenges academics to learn how to gather and communicate with a ‘public’. This would entail, it seems, leaving behind the self-obsessed and convoluted academic sub-cultures of interdisciplinarity (the 1990s), and forge a more concentrated attention to the interrelations, interconnections and interactions of knowledge construction across the current institutional landscape. I would concur with another of her observations, that for too long, the social and intellectual processes of knowledge construction have been framed by individual careers and institutional elites. So apart from celebrating the IAS and its welcome support for interdisciplinary research, the general mood at this IAS event, among attendees at least, was one of a general scepticism. This scepticism, palpable in the discussion periods, were directed at the way the academy is shaped by a multitude of semi-concealed forces, only some of which are genuinely concerned with the formation of knowledge.

So, the ‘future’ of interdisciplinarity? We are struggling to understand its past.

May 12, 2015

Mike van Graan: Institute of Advanced Study Visiting Fellow

This last week, I was organsing seven events around special guest Mike van Graan. The Warwick Global Research Priority in International Development (GRP-ID), in response to my research and the new MA in Arts, Enterprise and Development, made this year's annual research theme ‘Cultural Economies and Cultural Activism’. Mike van Graan is a Warwick Institute of Advanced Study Visiting Fellow, and the IAS program funding made this itinerary possible, not forgetting the support of the GRP-ID – the leads, Prof. Shirin Rai (Dept. Politics) and Prof Ann Stewart (School of Law), and GRP-ID Coordinator Dr Rajnaara Akhtar. My PhD students Tomi Oladepo and Gabi Ferdinand, were similarly indispensible.


Mike van Graan is the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute and is the former Secretary General of the Arterial Network, a continent-wide network engaged in the African creative sector. He currently serves as a UNESCO Technical Expert on the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. He runs his own consultancy and has played numerous roles in South Africa’s developing cultural sector. His plays include Die Generaal (The Generaal), winner of the Fleur du Cap Best New Script Award 2008; Brothers in Blood, a Market Theatre production that won the Naledi Theatre Award for Best New Play 2009, Lago’s Last Dance which premiered on the Main Programme at the National Arts Festival and was nominated in the Fleur du Cap Best New Script category, 2009; and many others, including Green Man Flashing (2004), which our students here at Warwick have recently engaged with. Last year some of us saw the production of his play Rainbow Scars, which was programmed as part of the Afrovibes Festival, performed in Birmingham and London. In 2013 Mike van Graan was appointed as the first Festival Playwright at the National Arts Festival in South Africa. Four of his works, including a new piece, Writer's Block, were showcased at the Festival.

I know Mike as a valued member of Global Cultural Economy Network, a group of researchers, entrepreneurs and consultants, many independent UNESCO advisors who are attempting to develop a new paradigm of cultural thinking for policy – local, national and global.

A full report will be written of the week of events, so here I will just summarise the events and their outcomes.

The week started with a seminar for early career researchers and PhD students: ‘Researching Contemporary Culture in Africa’. It, moreover, attracted some students from outside Warwick: Adeolu Adesanya from Leicester University gave a talk on researching business on the informal economy of the streets of Lagos (Nigeria). He was one of four students presenting in this morning-long seminar, which opened with Mike van Graan’s detailed and informative lecture on the practicalities and methodologies necessary for cultural research in Africa. This was followes by lunch, where the staff members, two of the PhD students, along with Visiting Fellow from China, Dr Xiao Bo, convened as the panel of judges on the Warwick GRP-ID Annual Photography Competition. From a short list of twelve, each of which were exhibited beforehand, we chose three winners – announced by me at the Wednesday evening public event where Mike van Graan presented the winner with prize. Before that, however, we held a full ‘videod’ ‘Interview with Mike van Graan’, where Dr Yvette Hutchison (a South African and expert in African theatre) and I interviewed Mike to an open audience. He discussed his career, mission, values and pioneering cultural work across the African continent.

On the Wednesday, Mike delivered The Annual Public Lecture in International Development, and attracting a wide public and campus audience. This event is important, (last year was the UK Givernment minister for ID: Rt Hon Justine Greening), it serves as a showcase for the GRP-ID research and our central concerns for critical thinking, humanities research, gender and rights, and a radical democracy approach to development. Mike was perfect for this occasion, as he presented the work of the AFAI in the context of the promotion of rights, democracy and diversity in post-Aparthied South Africa. His talk will hopefully form the basis of a Special Issue I will edit of the Journal of Law, Social Justice and Global Development.

On Thursday morning we gathered for an exploratory seminar, called ‘Research Opportunities in Africa’. This meeting was open to potential collaborators at Warwick (specifically the GRP network) and saw Mike discussing the possibility of a strategic partnership with the African Arts Institute. We decided to collaborate on (i) student internships and PhD residency; (ii) funded projects focussing on local cultural development in Africa in the context of global cultural policies (details forthcoming). This last subject was the theme of Mike’s address to the fellows of the IAS the following day. His address was titled, 'Creative Economies and Cultural Activism in contemporary Africa', where framed by the South Africa’s White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage (the first published in 1996, now revised), he explained how the political compromises of the government made cultural policy development fraught with contradictions.

Friday was our last, if intensive, day. The morning seminar was open to all University students but centrally featured students on my masters module ‘Culture and Social Innovation’ talking about our plans for a new international cultural festival in Coventry. The project is potentially huge, but in need of some advice and experience from the cultural sector veteran that Mike is. My role in this festival is to construct a 5-year strategic plan, (as well as mobilise the students), and aims within five years to be able to attract artists and musicians from all over the developing world.

After an agreeable lunch, the highlight of the week was the Friday afternoon ‘Global Cultural Economy Roundtable’. Apart from Mike, a special guest speaker was the UNESCO Chair in Cultural PoIicy for Germany, Professor Wolfgang Schneider. It also featured short position papers on the subject of culture as a resource for development: these were by Shane Homan (Monash), Anna Langdell (British Council), Tom Fleming (TFCC, London), Haili Ma (China Centre, Chester University) and my old PhD student Lorraine Lim (now Birkbeck College London). Following Mike’s introductory paper I will summarise the content of this debate as follows: First, we discussed how the concept of ‘culture’ can shift and change complexion depending on its role in policy discourse: so many assumptions that reinforce the semantics of culture are virtually meaningless in Africa. Second, cultural discourses are not merely intellectual, but embody the power and interests of institutions and agents of governance (including closed professional networks of elites); cultural discourse has evolved, whereby it animates national and international markets in various ways in relation to the production of cultural knowledge, creative goods and services. Third, there may seem like there exists a causal line from cultural discourse and cultural industries, but this is not so straightforward, and even where cultural discourse has relevance beyond a government signatory, it has to be understood, interpreted and implemented in local conditions, which, at least accross Africa, vary enormously. Fourth: global structural economic inequities and the lack of public infrastructure for culture in Africa, create a state of structutral dependency, where organisations, artists, agencies, and so on, work within the requirements and regulatory principles of their international funder and not local recipients or participants. With this state of affairs comes a passive acceptance of, rather than rigorous engagement with, cultural discourse and its industries. Lastly, the prevailing and dominant cultural discourses – as benign as they seem with their championing of rights and diversity – are embedded with world-views and embodied with assumptions biased in favour of certain Western paradigms. They cannot simply be taken as unequivocally constructive.

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