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September 07, 2009

Indisciplinarity’s Mid–Life Crisis

Writing about web page http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/ci/current?cookieSet=1

The latest (Summer 2009) issue of Critical Inquiry, arguably the leading humanities journal in the United States, is devoted to interdisciplinarity, an idea with which I have identified throughout my entire academic career, even as an undergraduate. In fact, all of my degrees are interdisciplinary. I have also theorized about interdisciplinarity from time to time. My most sustained treatment, Philosophy, Rhetoric and the End of Knowledge, appeared in a second edition a few years ago, now co-authored with Jim Collier of Virginia Tech. I am very much pro-interdisciplinarity, but after reading this issue of Critical Inquiry, I am minded of Voltaire’s quip: ‘God save me from my friends -- my enemies I can take care of’. From the looks of it, interdisciplinarity is suffering from a mid-life crisis.

I will review a few of the matters raised – and not raised – in this special issue. But first, readers who are sensitive to the contemporary academic scene will be struck by the American-style parochial elitism, which mirrors an older period when British journals were over-represented by people from Oxford and Cambridge – rather than, say, Harvard and Chicago – all of whom seem to know each other’s texts and even jokes. There are also various excruciating verbal mannerisms – the rhetorical throat clearing, tie adjusting and name-checking – that are the telltale signs of people who spend too much time talking to each other and hence are too reliant on what each thinks of the other.

Without denying the occasional insight in many of the articles, I come away from the special issue disappointed by the extent to which the discussion of interdisciplinarity does not seem to have progressed very much since Philosophy, Rhetoric and the End of Knowledge came out in 1993. In fact, many of these papers appear caught in the early 1980s time-warp of my graduate school days when, in the first flush of Anglophone postmodernism, it was cool and radical to ‘blur genres’ and ‘deconstruct binaries’, given the ossified nature of disciplinary boundaries.

Part of the problem may be the context of publication. Most of the papers appear to have been written for a conference held at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Chicago. In terms of changes taking place in higher education across the world, this may be the ultimate backwater, simply by virtue of its relative immunity from those changes. We are so used to thinking of backwardness in terms of the dispossessed that it is easy to overlook that the elites may also be left behind by history, even while they largely keep their possessions – which just end up being worth less than before. To flourish for oneself and to be relevant to others are two distinct achievements, and while there need not be a tradeoff between the two, one should provide independent evidence for each.

James Chandler’s introduction to the issue illustrates what I’m talking about. He barely registers the fact that the recent drive to interdisciplinarity reflects not the inherent limitations of disciplinary knowledge or the discovery of new domains of knowledge (which he discusses in considerable abundance), but the relative weakening of the university’s position in defining how knowledge should be organized, even within its own institutional setting. Here I refer to the withdrawal of state subsidies for higher education, accompanied by various incentives for academics to justify their existence by collaborating with private funders. To be sure, universities have always had working arrangements with the private sector but our own period is marked by increased dependency on a limited range of funders – largely due to the size of the budgets required for cutting edge research.

To his modest credit, Mario Biagioli sees this point but in a characteristically too polite way to cause anyone to take notice. Biagioli’s article is about our shared field of science studies, and how it has managed to thrive amidst the post-Cold War meltdown of the university – unlike other interdisciplinary fields in the humanities and social sciences. The trick is simply to follow the funding fashions in research projects and not be overly concerned about theoretical coherence. The result is that while science studies certainly thrives in the academy, its exact disciplinary location always remains uncertain. Although Biagioli means well, his conclusion is about as intriguing as the idea that cockroaches can survive in virtually any previously inhabited space.

Lorraine Daston, in contrast, is keen to distinguish ‘history of science’ as a full-fledged discipline independent of science studies. She is happy to admit that the controversies that have embroiled science studies over the past decade or so – the so-called Science Wars – are to be expected of a field that shadows so closely the changing fortunes of science in society at large. Yes, of course. By implication, she suggests, ‘history of science’ is different – dealing with the past but only with an eye to the past, not the present or future. Daston unwisely presumes without argument that the relative insulation of ‘history of science’ from the present and future is to the field’s credit. Her piece left me with the sense of a discipline settling into a state of ‘genteel poverty’.

Finally, something must be said about Judith Butler’s piece, ‘Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity’. It is presented as a defence of academic freedom but it is last article I would offer as evidence in support of this noble principle. Butler is here defending the quite reasonable proposition that if the state, which protects academic freedom, objects to questions being raised about the legitimacy of its own actions, then the state forfeits its own legitimacy. In this respect, the legitimacy of state power and academic freedom are mutually implicated. Fine. But why do we need 25 pages of digressions through the works of Kant, Derrida and Foucault to make this point – especially when nothing interesting is added to our understanding of these texts? Instead we are given a tour of Butler’s reading habits (and infer that she is heroically abstracting from the specific case of Israel). Others may and have come to similar conclusions by a much less circuitous route – but probably in lower profile places.

I know this sounds churlish, but our responsibility as academics goes beyond simply giving a running order of our states of mind – that is, unless we think that there is some intrinsic value in retracing the steps by which we have reached our conclusions. The discipline called ‘logic’ promotes itself on such grounds. However, Butler – and of course she is hardly alone – does not claim to be a logician. In that case, would it not be more academically responsible to make one’s arguments by adopting the most efficient means vis-à-vis the target audience? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate good faith demonstration of interdisciplinary communication?

In any case, I recommend those interested in the future of interdisciplinarity to look out for the publication of the Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity in March 2010.


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