“In order to do interdisciplinary work, it is not enough to take a ‘subject’ (a theme) and to arrange two or three sciences around it. Interdisciplinary study consists of creating a new object, which belongs to no one.” Roland Barthes, “Research: The Young” in “The Rustle of Language”
Interdisciplinary is often taken to mean putting a scientist, an artist, and an engineer in the same room and having them produce something “unique” and special that neither could produce on their own.
Where I teach, the keyword has been interdisciplinarity, but it’s only lip service that often devolves into clumsy, politically fraught, contentious projects that maybe get completed..after a few years.
There are a handful of people who can transcend disciplines and create things that stretch the envelope of possibility, probably because they have the skills that the instrumental disciplines by themselves offer. They are the multiple, simultaneous, self-collaborating artist-designer-engineer-scientist-creatives — all in one. Hyphenated, like multiple simultaneous social identities. They are tricky to describe, or pin-down. Their bios are difficult to write in 25 words and still feel that you’ve got even a little bit of coverage. They have no particular “home”, but can occupy different communities, slip over to other communities, turn on a dime and talk the talk of different communities of practice with authority and fluidity. And their only illegitimacy comes from the fact that they often piss off the rock-headed, old-school disciplinarians who can’t see the virtue in multiple perspectives. Or who can’t get the fact that they can’t play by the disciplinary rules.
Anyone who has multiple simultaneous social identities of a different sort knows what I mean. You can’t fill out forms that ask you to say what your race is. Or your gender. Or you get in trouble because, once, you identified as white. And now you identify as black or “other.” There are similar “framework” problems with being multidisciplinary. Not at all the same social worlds problems, but the same issues associated with trying to find safe places to do what you do, or be who you’ve become.
My opinion is that that notion has always been compelling, but terribly naive and awkward. Getting everyone together in one room and able to spend enough time together to understand the perspective of the other’s discipline may be a start. But, honestly? I think it’s absolutely vital — a requirement — that you practice the other disciplines that contribute to the project. Which takes time. And will. Not to mention, well..discipline to become a designer, or chemist, or engineer, or cultural theorist, or whatever. And I think it’s more than just learning how to program a microcontroller or reading de Certeau or taking a workshop. It may not be popular to think this way, but it takes time. You have to invest that time if you expect to acquire “perspective” from the practices of other disciplines. And once you’ve done that, and transcended disciplines, you come to a unique, individual perspective from which unique, potentially fantastic things can be created. Even if just by yourself. It’s more than an artist learning to program a computer. Or a scientist learning to understand how knowledge circulates from a social science perspective. You have to “become” and spend time as a practitioner of the “practices” that you want to inform how you do what you do.
Merely teaching programming for writers may be a start, but you end up with a writer who can program, which is not quite someone transcending disciplines to create extra special things.
(Thanks to Simon Penny for the Barthes quote.)