Saturday, September 09, 2006

interdisciplines and the anti-disciplinary

Is it an interdiscipline yet?

Once upon a time I aspired to creating with others a collective field "feminism and writing technologies." This was before cyberculture studies or new media or humanities computing or digital culture. It was still in the world (if not the exact time) of the maverick radical pedagogies and the individual researches/teaching we called "interdisciplinary" in the 60s and 70s.

The formation "women's studies" (larger, much larger indeed than an "interdiscipline," I'm still not sure what it is actually. Interdisciplinary field is inadequate -- it's not a single field at all. Anyway, that thing) -- "women's studies" was in formation then, an emergent field in the proper sense of emergent: self-organizing, multi-institutionalized, its very many structures "learning" at a level not located with individual humans. That thing. Pedagogically driven but not service defined.

So I imagined "feminism and writing technologies" as another, maybe smaller, emergent field. All those energies that have gone into the other new media thingies I imagined, not wholly taken with feminism and writing technologies maybe, but at least hailing it.

And some of that has happened. Individually.

I never noticed then and only have over the last not-quite-a-decade, the birth of the "interdiscipline."

When I first became a professor in women's studies, a junior assistant professor, I was constantly asked what was my "field" -- a question for which "women's studies" was not the proper answer. Actually what folks wanted was the name of a discipline: history, sociology, anthropology, literature (more than English), that sort of thing. I said "feminism and writing technologies." Since this was before these other new media studies this was literally unintelligible to those asking such questions.

"No, REALLY, what did you get your PhD in?" "The History of Consciousness." This usually stopped the questions. I'm not sure how properly.

After a while folks started prompting me: "What is it? Cultural Studies?" That was the most acceptable "field" for me to reference. At first I repudiated it, but shortly came to feel allied with cultural studies (broadly conceived, perhaps many kinds of studies of "culture"), although not defined by it. I tried out at other times such phrases as "feminist theory." When I came up for tenure my chair was required to attend a campus committee reviewing my case to explain to them what "feminist theory" was. Apparently she was eloquently able to satisfy them, because I did get tenure in women's studies.

Over the course of almost a decade I was working on a book on feminism and writing technologies. It kept morphing into more and different things and still does I guess. But at one pivotal point I broke it into several smaller projects and offered one of them to a press. I was told up front, just looking at the title including "feminism and writing technologies," that the word "feminism" was no longer a title term that would be taken seriously. Presumably not sell, a negative flash point for publishers.

Quite a difference from the moment in which my first book was published. Feminism was apparently a new market then. And a woman editor perhaps wanted to open it. Wider?

At another point a reader, after saying many nice things about this particular project, indeed one might say enthusiastic about the connections made in it, gave it nonetheless the kiss of death. Despite its goodnesses of various sorts, the reader argued it wouldn't sell because it covered too many areas. No substantive constituency of readers existed for it already and folks would have to be interested in many more things than readerships actually are. The suggestion was to dramatically reshape it to be of interest to some particular interdiscipline, say "media studies."

I had started to perceive the makings of "interdisciplines" by now. These attempts to discipline me into them had continued, and I had come to see this as benign, maybe even something I aspired to myself, or at least, as a measure of a legitimation of interdisciplinary work in the academy. I thought of this as a friendly shift, as I thought of the institutionalization of women's studies, to the point of PhD programs and such.

So I was taken aback to be disadvantaged by such formation. I had thought it was an advantage for my work, and I had thought that making broad connections would be perceived as valuable. And I had assumed that "valuable" entailed "salable."

Even though I was writing about "niche marketing" then, I actually thought this work was both valuable within niches and also valuable within ideas of "broad interest." By which I understood, many readers would find "something" of interest which would cajole them into new interests and connections not yet cultivated. A matter of appealing to curiosity and the excitements of making unfamiliar connections. The unfamiliar being then a positive point of value, both intellectually and commercially.

I still wonder about this. I still aspire to make community with others who share an excitement in unfamiliar stuff newly connected across emerging abstractions of material importance in new literalizations. Who like new words, new thoughts, new syntheses.

I had thought that interdisciplines were evidences of such valuations and curiosities.

And are they?

Or are they more and more ways of managing and disciplining new knowledges. Bracketing them within older structures so they will not play out "emergently" -- ie. uncontrollably at the level of academic institutionalization.

I've loved Julie Thompson Klein's work on interdisciplinarity, but all along I was very uncomfortable with the overwhelming emphasis on collective evaluation that she forefronts. I put this down to her location as a policy person of sorts -- consulting with and creating academic units under economic and other restructurings.

I had thought she seemed oblivious to interdisciplinarity at the level of individual research projects which only sometimes combine with other collaborations. My own teachers I thought of as such models: doing both at various times, but very often those maverick types: Gregory Bateson, Norman O. Brown, Harry Berger, Jr.; maybe also Shelly Errington, Donna Haraway.

Only when I was pushed to revalue the "post-disciplinary," a term I'd disliked in favor of interdisciplinary on the model of an emergent "women's studies," did I come to rehistoricize what I was experiencing.

Lattuca's creating interdisciplinarity book was pivotal, as was Slaughter and Leslie on academic capitalism, and also new representations of women's studies I started to see around me.

When someone I respected publicly represented "the" history of women's studies as the history of disciplines self-consciously working in appreciative collaboration with their valued daughter, women's studies, to do both their work and more, the women's studies PhD, I started literally quaking with anxiety, disagreement, horror and rage. I lost it.

I incoherently and excitedly broke in, making a public scene, saying that another history of women's studies existed too: one in which women's studies was created from the critique of the disciplines, deliberately dismantling their foundations and creating something new out of the rubble. (I wasn't nearly as eloquent as this, however inadequate it still is.)

The anti-disciplinary.

I had never thought of myself as strictly anti-disciplinary. I've always loved to learn how disciplines see worlds and are worlds: figuring out how argument and things are made in disciplines (and interdisciplines), not in competition but in a kind of honoring appreciation that is also denaturalizing.

I assume that denaturalizing is not the same as deauthorizing or dishonoring. I kept trying to communicate this ethic to students, colleagues and, at times, myself.

But now I felt pushed, polarized, dis-allied, dis-identified, repudiated -- and my response was to do all back! And to reclaim the history of such polarizing reactions -- even though my own history was usually worked in all the inbetween places.

Now I have come to see the interdisciplinary as no longer friendly. As the essentialization of corporate academy -- emphasis on word "corporate" playing between the corporations of capital and the corporate of collective. Essentialization here being both my own "error" of such reactive polarization of a new set of institutionalizations, and also the coming-into-being of something I feel myself defining myself against.

Is this wise?


Dominic Ebacher said...

Good luck, your life seems interesting!

Peace and Love!

Dominic Ebacher

freespeechlover said...

I too see interdisciplinary as having been coopted by the academy turning corporate in terms of management or administration. The history of "interdisciplinary" in relationship to women's studies on my own campus bears some of the signs you mention, except that because my campus is smaller and its known for its national aviation research institute, I have for years been aware of how interdisciplinarity is used to signal a wedding of science and industry. The aerospace industry is at the nexus of the military industrial complex--the development of modern weaponry and military aircraft have underwritten the commercial aircraft industry. And that's easy to see on my own campus; I have heard administrators who come out of the life sciences talk about interdisciplinary and they mean multidisciplinarity, which means getting grants in which industry partners with the university or the N.S.F. It's basically about the physical sciences--engineering and math.

In Women's Studies, we have mostly reacted against this model of interdisciplinarity, but we have also had to position ourselves in relationship to it, which has meant historically 1) the dept. as a stepping stone into administrative positions and 2) Women's Studies as a "service" dept. that frankly functions to allow others to do scholarship.

It's a very exploitative relationship, and I would not sentimentalize it with any palp about the "father" or "mother" and ironic "daughters."

I also think that kind of history is dangerous in its amnesia about the kind of intellectual formations that occured in the late 1960s in which the university as an institution was radicalized and where there were interesting counter cultural schools, reading and writing groups, where the underground press was an important literary model. I have stuff in my dissertation about this, and I do not think women's studies would have existed without that.

I like the term intellectual formation, precisely because it takes "academia" outside "academia." Indeed, one stake I have in revising my dissertation is to argue that the breaking up of cultural anthropology and the different generic distinctions that occured within that breakup owe their existence to radical intellectual formations--I don't even like to use the term, discipline, although clearly disciplines were functioning, but in ways that were distinctly different at least for the kind of historizing of feminism and anthropology I want to do.

At the same time, I confess to wanting to do ethnographic fieldwork along the lines suggested by Mary John, when she perceptively noticed that US feminist ethnography ironically relocated feminism in the U.S. at the same time it looked to denaturalize it by studying "women" elsewhere. "Why not a feminist ethnography of feminists elsewhere?" seemed exactly the right question to me and influenced my fieldwork project which is a study of the Palestinian woman question after Oslo. One essay in that book will be about the interview as a quasi-public space in which elites contested for the nation-state via a controversy that erupted around a series of workshops women's organizations did on women and the law called the Model Parliament.

My problem can be summed up in the question, who is my audience? meaning am I writing for the U.S. academy or for the Palestinian one, because there are deep differences between the two, and typically American academics who want to write about the Palestinians do so under some kind of human rights or international law rubric, which is defined by legal scholarship, political science, or writing for think tanks or NGOs that academics on my campus would not see as something that could "count" for promotion.

freespeechlover said...

A couple of points about my last post. I should have said, "I confess to having wanted to do fieldwork," but on my own terms that were done within a "thing" I think of as feminist ethnography and Mary John's challenge to feminist anthropologists in the U.S.

The other thing I would add is that I would amend the "which audience am I writing for," in the sense that I do think the concept of an audience is problematic in just the sense that Katie mentions.

I was told at one point in revisions of my dissertation that I needed to think about who the audience was for the book. I wanted to answer, "I don't know," not to say that there was no audience but that I didn't know who, where, what interdisciplinary or feminist niches were out there lurking within disciplines that might be interested in what I had to say.

It turns out that a woman in the Education College on my campus has taught Women Writing Culture. The book has sold well, and while it was aimed at anthropologists, I have no idea who has bought it. It was easy to market, since it piggybacked on Writing Culture.

My revised doctoral thesis is another thing altogether, since I don't know who will be interested in the kind of historicizing I want to propose. I was trying to do something new in that thesis, and I think I did. And I think anthropology is a kind of wild card discipline and has been for a while.

laura_cd said...

I would agree that the "corporate-ization" of Academia creates a very tight (practically claustrophobic) space for people (to be able to cite a specific expertise in an easily recognizable discipline), for publishing (if it will not "sell" to a predetermined group, why take a chance on it?), and for the actual subject (in my life, you can't just study British literature, you need to pick a time period, better yet pick a decade or a year or a person). And where will this ultra-specificity get us? I, personally, find it limiting and discouraging because the atmosphere makes it difficult to explore fields that are scary and unknown because (1) of the emotional and intellectual energy needed to try, pursue, fall down, and get back up again when grappling with a new way of thinking and (2) will this lead to a publication? Will it "count" (as freespeechlover asked) to further your career?

Katie asked if it was "wise" to set herself up against the trend? It probably is not wise from a economic point of view. It probably is not wise from a career point of view seeing the participation of all parts of the university being folded into the business or corporate model.

However, it may not be a wise personal decision. If giving over that last inch of self (referring to Alan Moore's construction of "inch") will invalidate the experience, passion, and scholarship that you still want to accomplish. If so, you might have to fashion a mode of scholarship that practices slight of hand (a "sell-able" piece of work that nonetheless makes contact, discreetly in back alleys or public bathrooms, with other forms or inquiry that could lead the reader down new and exciting paths).

freespeechlover said...

A response to Laura cd,

I think it is possible to produce the kind of anti-disciplinary scholarship that Katie talks about, since she has, in fact, done so in her first book.

I think sometimes you have to shop around for presses, and the key, as I see it, is to find people who will value your work enough to live with the compromises you have to make to do what you want to. Like the good enough mother, there is the good enough editor, and that's the person you need. Because all work is edited before it is published, and the key questions are over what kind of editing, what stays and what goes, what one has to do to satisfy a reader and what one doesn't have to, and this is negotiable.

Interdisciplinary has always been contested by academics. I recall debates about interdisciplinarity when I was an undergraduate and the way interdisciplinarity vs. multidisciplinarity was one grid through which people were arguing over what counted as disciplines as well as interdisciplines as well as methods and categories in American Studies.

Questions about publishing are questions about what is legible and for whom, and these are often arbitrary in the sense that you get a certain reader and not another one.

Katie King said...

Thanks Laura for your comments. And I'm wondering about the choices we seem to be presented with. As if choices against specialization are necessarily for mainstream markets. The popular and the "accessible."

Then the whole "burden of style" thing that Warner describes comes into play.

I recently found this quotation from Gramsci that I think is important too:

A concept which is difficult in itself cannot be made easy when it is expressed without becoming vulgarized.
Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from cultural writings. London (Lawrence & Wishart) 1985, 32

Anonymous said...

When I arrived on my campus to begin my graduate work in women’s studies, I had, quite literally, no idea that the word “interdisciplinarity” existed. And, once I learned that it did, I had no idea what it meant. As part of our coursework that first year, my fellow grad students and I read about it, talked about it and read some more about it. Ad nauseum. Then we asked our professors about it. Predictably, there was a question about it on my comprehensive exam. And I was even on a departmental committee that debated the pros and cons of codifying the official departmental definition as part of the graduate policies! But, in the end, I have to be honest: I’ve jumped through all the hoops (except that pesky dissertation) on the way to earning a Ph.D. in women’s studies, and I’m still not entirely sure 1) that I know what it means or 2) that I care.

Lest you think me cranky or cynical, let me explain. Currently a Ph.D. candidate in women’s studies, my entire education, from kindergarten up to and including the present moment, has been conducted at public institutions, and, until I arrived at the University of Toronto for my first attempt at grad school back in 1998, was ridiculously under-resourced in every conceivable way. The product of a public school system from which too many of my classmates didn’t graduate, I was one of the lucky ones: Completely by accident, good fortune, and the determination of my working-class parents, who balanced full-time jobs with their college classes while I was in elementary school, I managed to score high enough on various standardized tests to get placed in honors classes once I reached junior high. In retrospect, this was truly fortuitous, but, at eleven years old, all I cared about was that the friends I had known all my life, who lived in my neighborhood, weren’t in my classes on the first day of seventh grade. (As a feminist scholar, I could, of course, offer a lengthy analysis of what that was all about, but critiquing the racist and classist dimensions of the public school system in local and national contexts is for another conversation.)

My high school honors classes were part of an innovative pilot program in which my English and history teachers team-taught thematically linked classes. After that experience, I eventually did my undergraduate work at a tiny, totally unprestigious, public, four-year college whose major claim to fame was that it was (and still is) widely regarded as one of the best places in the U.S. to get a degree in education. It was also the place that you went if you wanted to go to college and you lived in my neighborhood. Except for the education program, all you basically had to do to be admitted was bring a pencil. Fortunately for me, I had lots of pencils. I also had tremendous (feminist, marxist) professors whose teaching and research interests extended well beyond the boundaries of what they were able to teach within the confines of what the college could offer, given its limited resources. Thus, my double major in history and theatre became, in essence, an interdisciplinary cultural studies degree in which I learned how to, for example, build a set, sew a costume, analyze a film, read literature in its socio-historical context, and work in an archive.

I understand now that one of the reasons I didn’t know there was such a thing as “interdisciplinarity” was because the fluidity of research approaches and the mandate for (as Katie puts it) “flexible knowledges” has been entirely naturalized for me to such a degree that I’ve had an incredibly difficult time explaining (to my professors, in grant proposals, and, now, in my dissertation) how it is I actually go about doing my research. For me in my women’s studies location, there has been a tremendous concern for identifying at least two “methodologies” that we, as grad students, utilize in our research. The identification and use of these two identifiable, codified “methodologies” is what earns the coveted label “interdisciplinary” in my department, but I’ve found it virtually impossible to put my own work into such a little box whose sides are formed using, predominantly, the language and “methods” of the social sciences. Katie has written that she now thinks of “the interdisciplinary as no longer friendly,” but, for me, since learning that there is such a thing (rather ironically through my graduate work in women’s studies, which claims interdisciplinarity as its modus operandi), it hasn’t ever been “friendly.” At least, not to me, not in the form it takes in my department. So, like Katie, the more I’m forced to explain how I do my work, which sometimes feels an awful lot like justifying not only the existence of that work, but also my right to do it, the more I feel myself defining myself against the corporatization of women’s studies and interdisciplinarity. I worry about this as I prepare to begin looking for a job in which I will undoubtedly be asked to prove the ways in which I am an “interdisciplinary” scholar.

What I find most interesting in all of this, though, is the fact that I (along with my generation of women’s studies scholars) am expected to write an “interdisciplinary” dissertation without the existence of any real model and under the supervision of professors who, for the most part, are not only not trained interdisciplinarily, but who also have no desire to do that sort of work. What’s even more ironic is that they get to define what counts as “interdisciplinary,” yet, as evidenced by their (mostly) inchoate responses, they don’t know what it means either.

So, as I write the section of my dissertation that explains how I do my research, I’ve been thinking about Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan and how they talk about the difference between inter- and trans-: the term “transnational” “signals attention to uneven and dissimilar circuits of culture and capital. Through such critical recognition, the links among patriarchies, colonialisms, racisms, and feminisms become more apparent and available for critique or appropriation.” “Internationalism,” on the other hand, “relies on humanist notions of diversity, creating and incorporating local specificities. It is globalizing, hegemonic, and deeply unequal in its effect.” Kaplan and Grewal advocate a transnational politics and practice a knowledge production that is separate from “the humanist notion of comparative study.” They prefer linkage to comparison as a means of understanding “the connections among nations, patriarchies, colonialisms, racisms, and feminisms but also to destabilize the forms of hegemony that underwrite the production of knowledge in the modern period” (“Transnational Practices and Interdisciplinary Feminist Scholarship: Refiguring Women’s and Gender Studies,” in Women’s Studies on Its Own (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 73-76). I wonder, then, if its not transdisciplinarity for which I’m aiming, because interdisciplinarity, since I’ve learned the word existed, has been an epistemic hegemon underscoring what gets to count as feminist/women’s studies scholarship. I’m simply not comfortable with women’s studies developing its own feminist version of thinking inside the box – however large some people might think that box is.