Monday, September 17, 2007

Cosmopolitanism in the Academy

"In the much-publicized backlash against the left's influence in the academy there has been a strange coincidence. On the one hand, literature departments..." (Robbins, 1)

It is perhaps striking that Robbins should elect to begin his piece Comparative Cosmopolitanisms with the equating of "the academy" identically with "literature departments." (1) While the arguments Robbins makes concerning literature departments offer an interesting insight to that portion of the academy, I would contend that his arguments could be even more broadly applied to the academy as a whole.

At the center of Robbins' argument are national identities as defined by common texts and rituals--speech communities, to borrow the term from anthropology--and more specifically, the dichotomy between the conservative movement to retain a strict national focus and the liberal trend of striving to identify as cosmopolitan to the exclusion of a specific national identity. While I probably cannot provide a credible exegesis in regards to the internal politics of the academy at large, it has been my experience that the struggle that Robbins dramatizes as taking place within literature departments is simultaneously occurring at this moment within every discipline. Academic disciplines are, after all, groups that identify themselves by common texts and practices and rather than the increasing cosmopolitanism of their respective subject matters, academic disciplines today seem faced with the increasing cosmopolitanism of knowledge as a whole in the form of a move towards interdisciplinary. The conservative literary view point that decries the loss of what is traditionally the concern of literature departments is echoed in the conservative position that disciplines should remain disciplinary and that interdisciplinary topic areas degrade the respectability of the discipline in question. Likewise, the liberal move to seek disciplinary cosmopolitanism has been heralded by some in favor of more interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge as providing a more balanced approach to the problems being addressed by having no root discipline to draw from. Following from the logic of Robbins' arguments, however, neither of these view points both acknowledges the figurative "metropolitan situation" of those schooled in a specific discipline and also explores the cosmopolitan topics that so want for study.

Robbins notes that a popular trend in criticism has been to assume the perspective of " a conquering gaze from nowhere" (3) and operate under the assumption that the analysis of the critic derived wholly and uncorruptedly from the next being analyzed. This trend was previously highly characteristic of anthropological writings, in which the anthropological observer wrote as though removed from the people being observed, but was ultimately abandoned in favor of an approach that acknowledged the observer's agency in reconstituting the behaviors of the "text being analyzed" to draw a parallel to Robbins' own arguments regarding literary criticism. Because critics have on the occasion denied their own "metropolitan situation" they have necessarily created a "Heisenbergian effect" which is to say they have altered the material being viewed in the process of viewing it. It seems that this same trend is present in interdisciplinary study, where in favor of approaching a topic on its own terms, the disciplinary perspective that must shape the observations made is excluded. What is necessary, Robbins might agree, is an acceptance and embracing of the disciplinary roots of scholars approaching new material.

At the same time it is easy to discount a perspective on the basis of its disciplinary ties, for what does an engineer know of the social implications of media representations? One of Robbins' major themes is precisely that no locality however small is purely local to itself. To put this in the context of a discourse on disciplinarily, no discipline is so localized to its subject matter that it does not have an impact and importance elsewhere in the vast kingdom of knowledge. Much as Robbins' justifies a cosmopolitan trend in literary criticism, so does his argument justify a cosmopolitan move for disciplines as a whole.

Borrowing elements from both the conservative and liberal ends of the academic spectrum, Robbins' arguments regarding literary criticism seem to provide just as much light by which to examine disciplinarity as they do for their initial subject matter. Robbins might therefore advise academics within each discipline to reforge their specialty as one that "without presumption of ultimate totalizing certainty, believes in its own intellectual powers of generalization, abstraction, synthesis, and representation at a distance, and in the process of putting them to use--that believes, one might say, in its own work."

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