Conclusion: Interdisciplinarity is Dead


“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.)

4 thoughts on “Conclusion: Interdisciplinarity is Dead”

  1. Bleecker: I have to wonder what prompted this particular rumination from you of all people. Should I ask: “why do you blog this?” You are one of the few I have known who is living the kind of hybridity you describe here as being “dead.” I routinely cite you as an example of what, for example, the iMAP program was created to support: “we’re trying to make little Julian Bleeckers,” I say. I agree, of course, that it’s not easy. Allan Sekula once said something like, “academia won’t be saved by expensive interdisciplinary transplants, but by educating ourselves out of our narrowness of concern.” We must not think of interdisciplinarity as something to be sprinkled onto existing categories of knowledge, but as a way of life. To sprinkle a little post-structuralism on this comment, I might say something like, “the whole notion of disciplines is what is dead (as if they were ever a vibrant aspect of academia) – it isn’t *inter*-disciplinarity that we need but a smarter approach to post-disciplinarity.” Part of educating ourselves out of a condition of narrowness means doing things that seem crazy – like pursuing successive graduate degrees in electrical engineering and the history of consciousness, for example. In a weird way, iMAP can never offer this type of solution, as it proposes a formal solution based on hybridity rather than multiplicity. We are living in an age that is intractibly contradictory on this subject: increasing specialization, virtuosity and focus is required at the exact moment that what is needed is the ability to move fluidly across disparate boundaries and disciplinary identities. When I started my graduate program in Film, Literature and Culture in the mid-90s, Marsha Kinder informed us that doing “Critical Studies” meant that you were responsible for everything – not just everything you did, but everything you saw (to paraphrase Michael Herr). It was an intimidating charge, but one that resonated throughout my time in graduate school. It worked precisely because Marsha was equally convincing about the fact that all of this *mattered* – thinking about, making and educating others about media and its consequences in the real world. Being smart carries a social obligation to be politically and culturally engaged. What better way than by making things, setting systems in motion, educating others to think clearly, to ask the right questions, to make things that require others to think, to be smarter, more engaged, and so on? Your post cuts straight to the most difficult parts of all of this: not only why do we blog? but why do we teach? why do we make things? why do we write? why do anything? The difficult hybridity of your work and the divergent paths you have chosen to bind together are a challenge and an exemplar for us all.

  2. The knee-jerk interdisciplinarity is dragging itself across a dry, mirage-riddled desert. That’s the inter-discipline drill of getting a couple of well-heeled, grounded, rules-playing disciplined disciplinarians together around a conference table to talk about doing something that their disciplines, by themselves, could not do because of an absence of knowledge or perspective or “approaches” to their own individual practice. What you’ll end up with is something that can be safely framed as an example of legitimate craft work or reasonable knowledge production within each respective practice idiom. It’ll be a history of biology, with contributions from a practicing biologist. Or an aesthetically pleasing visualization of the Google engine informed by an economist working alongside a digital illustrator. Something.

    That style of interdisciplinarity should be put to death, but quick. It seems impossible that that could do anything other than what you might expect, the proof being that it could never really go far afield of the individual disciplines in order to get the institutional support necessary to come to be. What we need are un-disciplined scholar-practitioner-craftspeople who have been disciplined enough to realize that disciplines heel anyone who wants to create anything markedly new. (Also, definitions of “new” are typically incremental advancements, not new knowledge or approaches.) Disciplines are not for those who disrupt conventional practices — or who do the entirely unexpected, behave rebelliously and raise a ruckus. Undisciplinarians should find themselves getting kicked out of things for not playing by the rules. Stuff like that. I think some of my most effective mentoring has come from telling people what rules to ignore. At those points you create new things — things that take a very different perspective, that behave according to unique, unexpected, unfamiliar logic.

    My skepticism is meant to be provocative, of course. Nothing is ever quite dead-dead, but somethings need to be declared dead so as to take the lessons learned and move on to new approaches. I feel a bit disappointed about the ways of learning that interdisciplinarity encourages, as presently conceived. It’s more than approaches to making knowledge — there’s craft associated with it, that I believe can only come from becoming a craftsperson in a variety of practice idioms. Like..for real. Not a little bit of 101 and then onto something else. Not to be too quaint, but a mariner learns sailmaking — not, just the principles of sailmaking, but they become a sailmaker and practice that craft, being a sailmaker, properly. They integrate the disciplines in their becoming a mariner.

    I think you’re right — interdisciplinarity has become itself a discipline. What may be in order is “post-disciplinarity” as you say, perhaps it’s “trans-disciplinarity”, or maybe even just undisciplined practitioners. It’ll not happen, in my experience, so long as there are disciplined deans and provosts and such all who see personal-professional, political and financial value in saying “interdisciplinary” while also insisting on a disciplined, well-behaved faculty.

    A couple of years ago I insisted that a young grad school prospect definitely not go to school and instead just practice the craft he imagined himself practicing. He developed a cadre of mentors that no one school could ever have provided, spent time learning and listening and making all the time. And he has exceeded himself by every measure at a tiny fraction of what it would have cost to go to school, exceeding by orders of magnitude what normal, disciplined grad students achieve, in my experience. A variety of factors are at play here, including a drive to create. But, he never allowed himself to become bored, nor routine, nor particularly disciplinary. Grad school would have positively ruined him forever.

    I blog this because I need some way of understanding why I sometimes get hazed for not doing what I “should be” doing and the next moment praised for doing something different. I appreciate the flattery — creating little Julian Bleeckers is what iMAP is trying to support. In my experience, there where iMAP is, you’ll probably find the riot police quickly surrounding the building. Or, they won’t — which may mean iMAP is disciplined. 😉

  3. Interdisciplinarity is a buzzword and therefore an appropriate target for our contempt — but more than that, it is genuinely destructive in its institutional incarnations. When I use it without quotation marks in grant applications and program descriptions, I do my best to channel my undergraduate advisor Chick Strand — a lifelong anarchist who hid out in the basements of academia and never went to a single faculty meeting — her advice? “Tell them what they want to hear, take their money and then do whatever you want.” I’ve heard lots of variations on the don’t-go-to-graduate-school riff — it borders on conventional wisdom in the film industry, where lots of people have made lots of money without the connections offered by a degree from USLAYU. I went back to graduate school in search of the challenges offered by a community of people who spend a lot of their time reading and thinking — but that was a decade or so before the internets became more interesting to me than television. At the moment, I agree that it would be possible to get much of that experience — and to sidestep the question of inter/disciplines entirely — by strategically jacking in to an array of networks and distributed communities. By comparison, I know that, in many ways, iMAP is about as radical as when McDonald’s offers the McRib sandwich for a few weeks each year, but I do love the sweet, tangy sauce.

  4. I’ve given a lot of thought to the topic of interdisciplinarity, and I think your post speaks a lot of truth. Within the media/electronic arts, most interdisciplinarity is just an extension of new-media-grabbing: scooping up the latest thing to port it over into some bad art project.

    I’ve always thought of “real” interdisciplinarity as being much more like learning a second language and its cultural mindset. Just learning how to program a microcontroller or reading de Certeau is like learning “guten tag”, “wie bitte” and “auf wiedersehen”.

    I recently gave a talk with the subtitle of “The Humiliation of Interdisciplinarity” – the problem with learning new stuff (or a language – at least for me) is that it’s very humiliating if it’s done in an immersive manner. My best personal example of this was when I strolled into an Engineering grad class in Biorobotics (thinking since I knew how to make stuff and read a lot of “guten tag” I’d be OK) and I got slashed to bits in short order. It’s a bit like getting off the train and only knowing three phrases in a strange land.

    I think going through the effort of creating a protocol of interdisciplinarity is almost a completely separate task than doing interdisciplinary work. Most of the people I know are exhausted (or content) knowing a couple different worlds, and don’t have the energy to learn the third world of administration.

    As luck would have it, my girlfriend just asked me what I was doing. I said I was responding to your post. She said: “Oh… I saw a thing about Julian in this USC publication…” and she handed me this glossy “Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences” with you in it, beside a your recently funded “Interdisciplinary Knowledge Production in Collaborative Research between Artistic and Engineering Practices” abstract. I’m curious to know more…

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