Sunday, December 6, 2009

incommensurability and interdisciplinarity

I'd like to address some issues that came up on the last day of the Animating Archives conference. I'll start with three short summaries, since we did not all go to the same talks:

I. Incommensurability

Ramesh Srinivasan's talk on creating technologies for local communities raised issues of knowledge, classification, and ontology. Following Monica, I'd like to emphasize that the incommensurability of different forms of knowledge is crucial to his work. Forms of knowledge differ not only in their content, but in how content is organized, indexed, and searched (that is, the project is as much about metadata as it is about data). Srinivasan noted that many databases and archives stifle diverse knowledge in favor of stability; in opposition to this trend, Srinivasan proposes rhizomatic forms of networked, complex systems that privilege emergence over stability. (This raises some interesting questions for me about the maintenance of a traditional knowledge-base on one hand and the hybridity of new forms of knowledge on the other, but I'll leave this to one side for now).

II. Interdisciplinarity

Speakers at the conference held a mind-boggling array of degrees and professional identities--artist-activist-theorist, programmer-ethnographer, jewish sound archivist blogger--but I think my favorite was Tara McPherson's self-styled epithet: "recovering interpretive humanities scholar." McPherson's comments during the wrap-up panel called for new operating systems,both literal and figurative (critical theory and poststructuralism were characterized as OS's in need of updating and patching) and new literacies that would promote hybrid practices; or, more colloquially, new ways of working that will help us to "shake ourselves out of our boxes." Interdisciplinarity was McPherson's watchword, her cure for what ails academia. 

III. Counterpoint and Weak / Strong Montage

James Chandler posed a methodological question to the group, citing Dominick LaCapra's critique of new historicism, which he labels a "weak montage" of juxtaposition without a strict structure. Chandler contrasted weak montage with "strong montage" and/or "contrapuntality" (I'm not sure if the two are equivalent). The latter notion comes from Said, and Chandler emphasized that counterpoint involves independent voices in tension, parallel autonomies operating within a structure. The final form of Chandler's question was: what do the models of contrapuntality, weak montage and strong montage accomplish for scholarship? 

IV. Professional Associations
During the question and answer session, McPherson discussed that her working group will be making presentations to various professional associations about what kinds of academic labor can count for research and teaching credit. She cited the MLA's new wiki project as an example of how MLA members have the opportunity to rethink academic labor in light of new technologies, and encouraged the audience to contribute to this document.

In light of this series of episodes from the conference, I'd like to highlight a tension, a possible divergence and regrouping of the elements in the constellation I've presented: on the one hand, hybrid practices, interdisciplinarity, fruitful juxtapositions and anecdotal theory; on the other, disciplinarity, professional associations, incommensurability and more structured theories of counterpoint. McPherson's comments distilled this tension for me, for out of the same mouth came equally lively exhortations to "shake ourselves out of our boxes" and to aid professional associations in coding emergent forms of technological labor. Or, in Srinivasan's paradigm: what if different forms of professional practices and knowledge are incommensurable? In Chandler's parlance: in new hybrid practices, are different disciplines' methods and insights merely juxtaposed, or are they brought into a contrapuntal structure?

I don't have an answer for this question--indeed, it seems that it's a question that cannot be decided in advance (or "in theory"). It seems to me that the tension between interdisciplinarity and professionalism, between the productivity of new modes of scholarship and the difficulty in gaining professional recognition for this new kind of work, between forging connections among divergent knowledges and insisting on the incommensurability of different knowledges, reflects the pleasures and anxieties of playing at/with boundaries. I find that disciplines are somewhat artificial on the level of knowledge (there are sociologists who are more like certain anthropologists than they are like certain other sociologists), yet they are also material structures with stakes in what kind of knowledge is legitimated, valorized, and disseminated (the sociology and anthropology departments' budgets are separate, each hires its own faculty, maintains its own journals). There is also a disconnect between disciplines and departments (some would say that International Relations is a department that engages several disciplines). If, indeed, we need interdisciplinary or undisciplined scholarly work, should that work move outside the university (or has it already)? A quote often attributed to Henry Kissinger claims that "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small"--is interdisciplinarity a lower-stakes issue than forging ties outside of the university structure? 

No comments: