Sunday, October 24, 2010

How We Ought to Say It: Style as Mood, Matrixial Smile, Frutiful Remainder, Generative Principle, and Historical Method

Figure 1. Burberry Proserum "Medieval" Dress

by EILEEN JOY

I see invention as inseparable from singularity and alterity. --Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature

Consider this a very belated post-card from BABEL's panel, "On The Question of Style," held at last May's Kalamazoo Congress, but also a response to a recent post by historian Guy Halsall [Univ. of York]--"What Do We Mean By Interdisciplinarity?"--at his weblog Transformation of the Year 600 (which is devoted to Halsall's current research project, which you can read about HERE). Halsall's post it itself a bit belated, too, in that it comprises remarks given at the 2009 meeting of the International Medieval Congress in Leeds at a session devoted to "Modernism, Postmodernisn, and the Medieval Grand Narrative I: The Marriage of Theory and Praxis." I would encourage everyone to read Halsall's post, especially as I am going to be overly brief in my summation of it and may not do it full justice, but suffice to say that I see him arguing four primary things [I especially hope I get this right since Halsall himself indicated in his own post that many in the audience at Leeds indicated afterwards they agreed with him, yet maybe did not entirely get what he was trying to say/argue]:

1. although the term "interdisciplinary" is invoked ad nauseum within the academy, and especially in (typically very successful) grant applications, and also undergirds many a "Centre" of this-and-that "studies," it actually has become "meaningless" over time [in terms of results produced], yet it remains a "cherished myth" of medieval studies, and "should be rigorously challenged at its every usage"; moreover,

2. disciplines themselves do not have as much internal cohesion as we often imagine they do [take, for example, the fact that the boundary lines which used to be thought to exist between "literary" and "historical" texts are now understood to have always been "permeable" and unstable to begin with], and according to Halsall, setting a boundary around anything leaves it open to perpetual transgression [which is a good thing, actually--think of Foucault's example, from his "Discourse on Language," of Mendel's "monstrous" position vis-a-vis the discipline of biology of his time--disciplines actually constrain discourse in certain ways, often disallowing innovations that might be "true" and "real" yet can be dismissed; new objects require new disciplines, new protocols, new methodologies, and new discourses], all of which means disciplines possess neither internal nor external limits that are ever stable and therefore what "counts" as a discipline would always be a slippery slope, indeed [this is not to say that there is never any such thing as productive interdisciplinary work being done; as Halsall writes, "The true interdisciplinary scholar . . . actually works and publishes in two different disciplines, being recognised as a fellow-practitioner in both. This person is as rare as claims to interdisciplinarity are common but there are some. There are archaeologists who have carried out anthropological field-work, for example"]; further,

3. many so-called interdisciplinary projects, especially within a field like medieval studies, often just lapse into one or another sort of "cultural" or "social" history; in Halsall's view, all postmodern theories, in one form or another, are ultimately historicist, and as Halsall puts it more pointedly:
What emerges from the literary approach to history or the historical approach to literature if not straight cultural history? Once ‘context’ is assigned importance, history, as I see it, always wins. Perhaps this is because in spite of historians’ claims, the Rankean empiricist ideal still underlies pretty much all historical work. There have – perhaps understandably – been no real moves to produce history in line with the pre-Rankean ideal of history as ‘philosophy teaching by example’. Furthermore, the kind of explanation or causation that contextualism implies is (in my view) unsatisfying even from a historian’s point of view.
Of course cultural history is extremely valuable, BUT,

4. what happens to research that isn't invested, up front, in the supposed interdisciplinary "cultural history" outcome? A more "fruitful" way of dividing up medieval studies, in terms of contested and contesting positions, and working across those divisions, might be via theoretical positions. More pointedly, in Halsall's words [again],
If theory is – as it is – a way of seeing, rather than something to be applied, mechanically, it is something to be engaged with and refined, and this can be done from two points of view with an outcome, I suggest, that, as well as producing better theory, also reflects back, in different ways, on the areas whence those points of view started, rather than producing a single, merged, synthetic, effectively uni-disciplinary outcome.
I have a sneaking suspicion that most of us would not disagree with most of points 1 & 2 above. I have heard a LOT of talks at a lot of conferences in the past few years about the exhaustion and/or somewhat false pretensions of work that goes under the rubric of "interdisciplinarity," and I think most of us understand just how difficult it is to master the skill-sets, discourses, primary texts, intellectual history, and canonical methodologies of one discipline, let alone two or three, and we'd likely also agree that much work that calls itself interdisciplinary typically represents a scholar in, say, literary studies poaching materials from, say, philosophy or political theory, without necessarily immersing herself in the intellectual history/longue duree debates of that field. Of course, to say that the term interdisciplinary itself has become completely "meaningless" might be a bit overblown and hyperbolic, or at the very least, might entail a broader discussion about how each of us defines what we mean by "interdisciplinary" and how we see it as possibly enriching the field of medieval studies in ways that would actually re-shape the discipline of medieval studies and not just further extend it in directions it was always going to go anyway, which I think is partly Halsall's point. I think he's actually asking for more, and not less, disciplinary innovations, ones that do not always lapse back into familiar historicist models of thought and product.

This is not to say that many of us have not benefited directly from collaborative work with colleagues in different fields, or that our thinking about certain "objects" within medieval studies has not radically changed as a result of the reading we have done in other fields [I think the engagement that some in medieval studies have been having for a while now with object-oriented ontology, new materialisms, new and post-phenomenologies, philosophy of science, new media, sociology, political theory, and the like--in disciplines other than literature or history--are bringing about radical new approaches to understanding, say, the operations within a literary text, or of relations between human and non-human agents in history, or of affective pathways between human and nonhuman objects in history, etc.]--it's just that Halsall is asking us [productively, I think], to consider how to engage more deeply in the sorts of theoretical engagements, across fields and disciplines, that would not just lapse into what he calls "uni-disciplinary" results [a kind of consensus, let's say, about what kinds of history count, what types of theory count, collectively], but would lead instead to the strenuous re-evaluation of modes of thought and methodologies for doing our work. In some ways, isn't the work going on now, across multiple disciplines, under the rubrics of post/humanism, anti-humanism, animal studies, and new materialism, doing just that? And reaching back further, didn't feminist theory, across multiple disciplines, accomplish [and still accomplish] this sort of ground-shifting work? [I mean, feminist theory is, at bottom, confrontational, as is Marxist critique.] I disagree with Halsall a little bit that all of these theories are essentially unified in that they are all historical, for they actually present different, contested views of history, different ways of "seeing" history that are not always compatible [but I think Halsall's larger point is that, at least within medieval studies, they all operate within certain, very familiar literary-historical and cultural-historical paradigms that don't really change from study to study].

Halsall's own work is deeply cultural-historical of course, as well as what he calls "multi-disciplinary," and he also employs a very traditional historicism in the sense that he relies heavily on different sorts of "primary," documentary-type evidence [grave-goods, other archaeological evidence, charters, letter collections, and the like] while also looking at items like literary texts. So, if what he really wants is "engagement at the level of the development of theory," I guess I wish I knew more about what that means for Halsall--does he want a reform of "theory as usual" in light of the types of historical-archaeological objects and methodologies he works with, or does he want to craft new historical methodologies altogether [is that even possible at this point?]. Or, does he want more engaged debates, within historical studies, say, about how to read and evaluate different types of "evidence"? These are open questions.

How does any of this relate to BABEL's panel, "On The Question of Style," at last May's Kalamazoo Congress, which featured remarks from Valerie Allen, Kathleen Biddick, Ruth Evans, Anna Klosowka, and Michael Snediker? I'm not entirely sure, but since one of the questions posed to our discussants was how style-in-scholarship might enhance disciplinary knowledge, as well as how style functions as actual content-in-scholarship [which might be another way of asking how style is thought itself], it strikes me that when we talk about theory and theoretical engagement in relation to disciplinary knowledge and "outcomes," that we also have to talk about, not just how we see things [and what constrains and/or allows different, productive ways of seeing things], but also how we say what we see. And these are questions that hopefully swerve in a slightly different direction than the obvious post-structuralist insight that everything is, in some sense, language, and there is no "outside" to that, and therefore language [which is also always deferring and displacing meaning(s) from one textual location to another], arranged in a certain way, always simultaneously produces and constrains what we are able to think.

As Valerie Allen remarked, style is not just an elegant ornament of language but rather is its actual disposition. Style is, further, a mood,
a grammatical function of the verb-system that orients the verb toward reality in a certain way (declarative, hypothetical, etc.). Mood identifies the mode in which the verb is. Mood and mode are basically the same word (from Latin modus), so we can think of grammatical mood in terms of musical mode. Metaphor or analogy is perhaps the only way of getting access to style as a general concept, for it is impossible to get without style (in the archaic sense of “outside”) in order to think it. Style or mood and being are conjoint: “in every case Dasein always has some mood;” writes Heidegger; being is always in a mood — “we are never free of moods,” he says. . . . All communicative acts have modality.
There is no writing, further, without intention, or directionality, or following Heidegger again,
being in the world entails having things matter to us. The intentionality of style is not unidirectional, where we have designs upon our audience; it involves having an audience that matters to us, that shapes our diction. If saying so suggests that discourse communities determine our style it also harks back to the classical adage that style is formed through habits of reading, that writing is imitatio. The other side of the question — how do we write as we ought? — then is: “whom ought we to read?”
Ruth Evans commented upon the "beauty" of difficult writing, and on the ways in which beauty
splits desire, on the one hand extinguishing or tempering it (as in Thomas Aquinas), but on the other hand, as in Kant, bringing about “the disruption of any object.” Fascinated, we fail to see anything in the object -- in the style -- except our delight in looking at it. It’s one of the effects that the eerily beautiful style of Aranye Fradenburg’s Sacrifice Your Love has on me: its difficult, artful prose succeeds in making both present and absent the beautiful object that we call the Middle Ages.
Ultimately, for Evans, "it is the movement of desire within particular styles of literary criticism that stops them being merely self-referential, by allowing new things to emerge. . . . a 'fruitful remainder,' something left over, unexpressed: the remainder of desire." This connects to Anna Klosowska's idea of style as a "Neuter" or "third sex" that nevertheless possesses a "generative ability," a "superfluous element [that] ensures the flow of transactions," ultimately facilitating the relationship between fact and theory. For Kathleen Biddick, thinking about style, especially vis-a-vis Michael Snediker's formulation of aesthetic persons in his book Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (Minnesota, 2009) and Bracha Ettinger's conceptualization of trans-subjective, matrixial co-poesis in her book The Matrixial Borderspace (Minnesota, 2006), might be one way to imagine "a beside and beyond itself of the master signifier, a beside and beyond itself of the Phallus" that dominates so much discourse in queer theory [especially in relation to the death drive and futurity]. Through a meditation upon the matrixial "borderspace" of the Gothic smile of the Old Testament prophet Daniel [violently martyred as a Jew and later transformed into a Christian prophet who condemned Jews], carved in the Portico de Gloria of the Cathedral of St. James at Compostela [late 12th century], Biddick ruminated the connections "between exegesis, sculpture, performance, juridical execution, and liturgical lamentation" that coalesce in Daniel's story and the ways in which the "stony remainder" of his smile in the sculpture at Compostela signifies a "transtraumatic" encounter, a subjectivity which is never whole but which nevertheless can transmit partial, transubjective affects, ones in which Daniel always remains solicitously open to scrutiny, allowing, in Ettinger's words, "the articulation of a meaningful space between living and non-living, which has nothing to do with the notion of the abject and with the binary opposition between life and death." In all of these remarks, we might say that style engineers natality, holds history open, makes thinking possible, enables transactional encounters, takes up affective positions, tarries beyond master signifiers, and in the words of Michael Snediker, performs an "inhabiting of possibility."

For those interested in reading all of the comments by Allen, Evans, Klosowska, and Biddick, as well as the Response from Michael Snediker, you can read those HERE. In the meantime, I would just propose that when we talk about historicist-theoretical engagements, as well working across or between disciplines [however stable or unstable those might be], that style should also be an important part of that conversation. Because BABEL is interested in exploring this subject even further, we will be convening another panel on style at the inaugural biennial meeting of the Group at the University of Texas at Austin the first week of November, and you can see more about that HERE. In addition, BABEL is putting together a book, related to these panels, on the relationships between style, theory, methodology, and history which is envisioned as a conversations between medievalists and queer theorists, so stay tuned on that.

I honestly don't know if this post hangs together, or makes sense. How's that for an un-stylish sign-off? For real.

7 comments:

tenthmedieval said...

I'm glad you responded to Guy, because he seems to have posted that in part due to my invoking you in my post about his original presentation of the paper in such a way as to make him think I'd misunderstood him... Now the circle is closed. I'm afraid I rather lose the connection between his piece and your session (although since Kathleen Biddick has also, I believe, worked with archaeological material I expect there could be several). I may have missed it because of having seen one thing that we still don't agree on come up again, though, which was where you write:

"primary," documentary-type evidence [grave-goods, other archaeological evidence, charters, letter collections, and the like] while also looking at items like literary texts...

Charters and letters are IMO in the second category. Yes, an archaeological object was a statement when it was made, and continues to say something to us, but its message is material, and constructed in the most direct sense first. Charters (especially given my most recent paper, which I stuck up on academia.edu and will blog) are often narratives intended to, if not mislead at least adjust the truth, and letters, even more, present the writer as author. I can't draw a line between these and literary texts (especially when the scholarship that gets posted here so often has a determination towards literary style [ah! there we are!] itself) but I can draw one between them and arch├Žological goods; the stuff in the ground is primary evidence, unprocessed, but the texts are already selected, rebuilt, processed, framed and directed, and thus inherently secondary (in terms of process, of course, not precedence). Don't you think so too? I guess not but I don't quite get why.

Eileen Joy said...

Jonathan: there may actually be no connection between my comments on Guy Halsall's post and BABEL's panel on style at last May's Kalamazoo Congress--they were just both on my mind yesterday, and I was wondering how style might fit in to conversations about disciplinary concerns [including what we think we mean by "interdisciplinary"] vis-a-vis "proper" objects, genres, methodologies, theories, etc.

I likely stand corrected on what I was saying about "primary" materials--I am not an historian, and I was mainly just trying to convey the point that a good historicist, like Halsall, works with documentary evidence, which I take to be an artifact from the period itself, whether charter or grave-goods. I get the point that charters or any cultural artifact have a certain amount of "literariness" built in to them: they are not unvarnished "facts." I invoked the term "primary" to mean something like: the historical artifact itself, the object, whatever that object might be. So, in literary studies, medieval text themselves are the primary objects [not matter how over-written, rhetorical, artificed, etc.] and any writing on those texts is secondary, including modern scholarship. So I obviously muddled things there a bit.

More intriguing to me is what Halsall seemingly left out of his remarks: if he is interested, for example, in engagement at the level of the development of theory [more so than he is interested in so-called interdisciplinary work that always leads to cultural history of a certain stripe], then what kind of theory is he interested in seeing better engaged, better developed, etc.? I just wish he had fleshed out that point a bit more with some specific examples.

I also think it's just been too easy over the past few years or so to bash interdisciplinarity--Halsall is not wrong that, in many instances, it operates as a sort of cover-term for work that just goes along in the same way it always has, especially within certain literary-historical paradigms for research within the humanities, and if your litmus test for "true" interdisciplinarity is a scholar who publishes in more than one distinct discipline [each of which has its own methodological protocols, intellectual histories, journals, and the like], then it's too easy to make the case that most people aren't really doing "real" interdisicplinary work, but that may be drawing the definition too narrowly and leaving out a whole lot of scholarship that, although it may be undertaken/written within the professional confines of one discipline primarily, it still bears the deep imprint of work and thought carried out in other disciplines and does not necessarily lead to disciplinary business as usual. Jeffrey's book "Medieval Identity Machines" is a good example of this vis-a-vis critical temporality studies, which move back and forth across multiple disciplines, humanistic and scientific. Another example might be something like Karen Barad's book "Meeting the Universe Halfway" [feminist studies meets physics], and there are lots of other examples. This partly gets at Halsall's point re: theoretical engagements because I think we should actually think of interdisciplinarity as operating in more than one way, from borrowing structures of thought/ways of seeing from other disciplines, to borrowing their actual objects, to two persons from two different fields actually conducting and writing up research together [a cultural geographer and a sociologist, for example, writing about community formation in alluvial areas in premodern China], and so on and so forth. I just don't think interdisciplinarity, as a term or practice, has just one [successful] model, but many, with different scholarly impacts. The sciences are actually better at this than the humanists, in some way--for example, the work undertaken in collaboration between chemists and cybernetic specialists to create biological nano-technologies. Etc. Etc.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks for this rich post, Eileen, and for raising so many (intractable?) questions.

A stumbling block for me is Halsall's argument that, on the one hand, disciplines are not all that unified in their methodologies and ambits, and on the other:

"The true interdisciplinary scholar . . . actually works and publishes in two different disciplines, being recognised as a fellow-practitioner in both. This person is as rare as claims to interdisciplinarity are common but there are some."

Working in two disciplines at once as the ideal of doing interdisciplinary work assumes that there are coherent disciplines in which to do this simultaneous labor, but if we take seriously the observation that disciplines lack an articulable internal coherence, what working in two at once might also yield is simply a demonstration of that inherent messiness, an overlap in fields that actually were never all that separate in their practice.

Obviously one can make generalities about how history is practiced as opposed to literature or philosophy or archeology. But that's what they'll remain, generalities. They will never be true for how specific scholars conduct work. "The discipline" becomes a knotting together of disparate practices that often have very little to say to each other. In other words, it is conceivable to be interdisciplinary within a single discipline, isn't it?

So maybe what we're faced with here is the insufficiency of disciplinary designations rather than a problem with interdisciplinarity per se. I know we're stuck with disciplines out of long habit, and they are comfortable, familiar; but when they are assumed to be self-evident and highly effective at differentiation of research modes, they become a problem. As Judith Butler never said, discipline is a performance more than a pregiven, immutable reality.

Anonymous said...

There are many ways of skinning a cat. Though cats are so dear to my heart I would never want to try.

Interdisciplinarity, not multi-disciplinarity, is about inter-connectedness, interaction, interfaces and interchange. At its heart lies conversation and a willingness to be open to the ideas and practices of others, whether you agree with them or not, whether you understand them or not, whether you are expert in them or not. It is hard to agree with any one definition of interdisciplinarity, but particularly not a definition that centres it on one person and their skills and reputation. The whole point, I think, is that there is no right way of doing ‘it’, that it defies definition, that it is collaborative and iterative, that it exceeds and constantly crosses institutional boundaries. Some people enjoy such conversation, pilgrimage and movement, others do not. The difference is often personal as much as institutional. There are hedgehogs and foxes, raptors and prey in all disciplines and all walks of life. There are those who (knowing themselves) choose to stick to what they know and to become expert in it (to plough a straight and narrow furrough), and those who choose to confront what they see as their limitations. Then of course there are those who simply blindly stumble from day to day. Indeed we are all a little of each of those, aren’t we? Institutions can choose how they foster and reward these different attributes, but surely they can (or should) never define our sense of ourselves – intellectually or in other ways. But when we are talking of rewards my personal experience is quite the opposite of Halsall’s. Single-subject applications and single-authored publications are much easier to get public funding for and attract much higher kudos in the profession than interdisciplinary and collaborative ones. So – by a contrary route – I end up agreeing with him – the Academy pays lipservice to interdisciplinarity but rarely rewards or practices it. Conservatism is innate and widespread in our professions, and the contemporary climate is sympathetic to attacks on liberal interdisciplinarity. The recent attacks on Centres for Medieval Studies, for example, at the New Chaucer Society in New York could be read as just a faint reflection of the neo-conservatism that has swept the western world since 9/11 – let’s re-erect the boundaries, stick to what we know, keep ourselves safe, keep the other out, get back to basics. Conversely – it has to be said - Eileen Joy’s constantly reflective and questioning, future-oriented work, helps keep my dismay at such single-subject posturing at bay.

Interdisciplinarity can and indeed should be theoretically informed. Halsall’s crie de coeur seems really to be a demand for practice which is more theoretically centred – and the History department at York where he is based and where he studied has traditionally been one of the more theoretically focussed in UK. Theory is essential to what we do. Whether made explicit or not, we cannot organise our thoughts or make an argument or sustain an interpretation of anything without some understanding of the conceptual framework we use. So theory is not opposed to interdisciplinarity, or any form of scholarship (even the narrowly descriptive) it has to be a part of it. As Judith Bennett has written, however, theory can be problematic (History Matters). It is problematic the way that theory, is so often presented as dominated by great white male gods whose words are treated as scriptural truths. Her middle range theory – theory which makes use of empirical practice – seems like a better, less hierarchical, more open and more scholarly way to go. Karl Steel’s willingness to criticise at least some great theoreticians (such as Zizek) seems entirely admirable to me.

[to be continued]

Anonymous said...

[continuing]

History and historicism are not the same thing. Historicism can sometimes be ‘bad History’ – a kind of antiquarian collecting of historical facts slapped on to something else with little understanding of the conceptual frameworks and debates informing and generating those ‘facts’. Absolutely agree, 100%, with Guy Halsall there. But surely so much new historicism has moved well past that (Paul Strohm, Marion Turner and many others). History as a discipline is also often treated as oppressive and reactionary – not just by archaeologists (rejecting a role as the ‘handmaidens of History’) but also by literary scholars not wanting to be ‘fucked over’ by History (Sylvia Federico) – (and note the gendering of these arguments). Why is History regarded as the master narrative controlling, oppressing and defining all others? I find this absolutely the most fascinating question of all. I need Benjamin Owain Poore here. We need some Psychology – because my gut feeling is that our simultaneous desire for, and hatred of, History has deeply engrained roots. These are certainly not institutional … Literature has much more ancient standing in the Academy than History, and English (and Classics) Departments the world over are famed for their grandeur. There is something about the fact that we all have experienced histories, that we can never quite see the future, that makes History and historicism so compulsory, compulsive … or at least so much the easy way out…

When teaching (as opposed to researching) in a discursive and interdisciplinary context it is difficult to balance theory and methodology and practice and the acquisition of basic knowledge and …. all in one two hour class! We try to do that by a structured combination of single-discipline, multi-discipline and finally interdisciplinary seminars – so that the different stages and approaches of dealing with (for example) an object, a text and bringing them together are explicitly (and indeed artificially) laid out as separate steps. The students are encouraged to criticise each step and their bringing together. They often balk at this. Familiar with interdisciplinary, or multidisciplinary, undergraduate degrees (especially in the US) they don’t quite see why we don’t just lump everything together and get on with it. I sympathise, but I still think that theories, methodologies and practices are better learnt one by one and then combined. And this is not because they are bounded by disciplines so much as because – if you are dealing with say Marx – you need to give him some space and time before moving on to Weber. I will not say the results are perfect but there are some spectacular successes. A few alumni do indeed meet the criteria of being recognised as expert in two or more disciplines, but that that is not terribly important (to them or to others). Input does not have to have measurable equivalent output. Also nobody is forced to do any of this. We run single-subject MA programmes which are just as popular as the interdisciplinary one. Hybrid and constantly changing it is surely hard to define either the students or the staff at interdisciplinary centres by any collective scholarly stance other than a willingness to talk ….. and to move on ;-)

Anonymous said...

[continuing]

History and historicism are not the same thing. Historicism can sometimes be ‘bad History’ – a kind of antiquarian collecting of historical facts slapped on to something else with little understanding of the conceptual frameworks and debates informing and generating those ‘facts’. Absolutely agree, 100%, with Guy Halsall there. But surely so much new historicism has moved well past that (Paul Strohm, Marion Turner and many others). History as a discipline is also often treated as oppressive and reactionary – not just by archaeologists (rejecting a role as the ‘handmaidens of History’) but also by literary scholars not wanting to be ‘fucked over’ by History (Sylvia Federico) – (and note the gendering of these arguments). Why is History regarded as the master narrative controlling, oppressing and defining all others? I find this absolutely the most fascinating question of all. I need Benjamin Owain Poore here. We need some Psychology – because my gut feeling is that our simultaneous desire for, and hatred of, History has deeply engrained roots. These are certainly not institutional … Literature has much more ancient standing in the Academy than History, and English (and Classics) Departments the world over are famed for their grandeur. There is something about the fact that we all have experienced histories, that we can never quite see the future, that makes History and historicism so compulsory, compulsive … or at least so much the easy way out…

When teaching (as opposed to researching) in a discursive and interdisciplinary context it is difficult to balance theory and methodology and practice and the acquisition of basic knowledge and …. all in one two hour class! We try to do that by a structured combination of single-discipline, multi-discipline and finally interdisciplinary seminars – so that the different stages and approaches of dealing with (for example) an object, a text and bringing them together are explicitly (and indeed artificially) laid out as separate steps. The students are encouraged to criticise each step and their bringing together. They often balk at this. Familiar with interdisciplinary, or multidisciplinary, undergraduate degrees (especially in the US) they don’t quite see why we don’t just lump everything together and get on with it. I sympathise, but I still think that theories, methodologies and practices are better learnt one by one and then combined. And this is not because they are bounded by disciplines so much as because – if you are dealing with say Marx – you need to give him some space and time before moving on to Weber. I will not say the results are perfect but there are some spectacular successes. A few alumni do indeed meet the criteria of being recognised as expert in two or more disciplines, but that that is not terribly important (to them or to others). Input does not have to have measurable equivalent output. Also nobody is forced to do any of this. We run single-subject MA programmes which are just as popular as the interdisciplinary one. Hybrid and constantly changing it is surely hard to define either the students or the staff at interdisciplinary centres by any collective scholarly stance other than a willingness to talk ….. and to move on ;-)

Guy Halsall said...

This last two-part comment makes me very angry, partly because I have an anger problem but largely because of its thorough disingenuity. N.B. the last sentence. We like talking, but only if you talk about the things we're interested in, in the way we want to talk about them, and don't raise problematic issues questioning our cherished origin myths.

The point that attacks on Centres for Medieval Studies (CsMS) are manifestations of post 9/11 neo-conservatism defies belief. My own experience of CsMS is very much that they have a pronounced tendency to be the most conservative, intellectually uninteresting, theoretically monoglot, neophobic places imaginable - precisely because of the meaninglessness of their form of 'interdisciplinarity' which is a smoke-screen for simple bog-standard cultural history. And you can't do that with any theoretical approach other than bland historicism. That is why we have allegedly 'moved on' from talking about it (in other words, 'be quiet already, we don't want to talk about that any more'; note the implicit truth claim - you are out of date).

But I shall muse further on the issues raised in this post and its reponses on my own blog - including the two-parter above if I think I can do so without losing my job!