Some time ago, I came across a compelling blog posting entitled "Failure and the Future of Queer Studies" -- this is drawn from a panel at NYU that featured many of the big names in queer theory today (in the order that their profiles appear on the blog entry: Halberstam, Gopinath, Duggan, Nyong'o, Pellegrini, Muñoz). This entire posting is worth a read for many reasons (see HERE), but what caught my eye this morning was this statement by Lisa Duggan:
"The disciplines are the zombies of intellectual life right now—like capitalism, they keep coming back from devastating crisis and critique. We are encouraged to describe our work as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary, so that the disciplines may survive alongside our critical practices, fundamentally informing them."
I find this observation both astute and provocative. In particular, I'm intrigued by the metaphorical description of academic disciplines as zombies, and although Duggan goes on to discuss other things I would like to dwell for a bit on this metaphor's rich implications for how we (academics) speak about our own work. Up to this point, I've been inclined to think of academic disciplines not so much as zombies but as non-corporeal entities, or "ghosts" without bodies. We could say that those of us with interests in multilingual and comparative literary contexts (for instance) are very much "haunted" by implicit notions of nation- and language-based literary histories and related disciplinary distinctions -- even as we aim to do work that crosses those types of boundaries. [*] The forthcoming 2012 Meeting of the BABEL Working Group in Boston (remember to REGISTER, folks!) is sure to provoke creative thinking beyond the disciplines. For instance, one session (org. Laurie Finke and Marty Shichtman) explores the "Uncanny that haunts the site of the university" (see entire list of sessions HERE) -- and I imagine there will be much more about the BABEL Meeting here on ITM as the event nears.
BABEL Meeting aside, it is the impending release of the annual MLA Job Information List (new listings for the 2012-13 subscription year will be searchable HERE on September 14) that really gives new resonance and urgency to Duggan's statement. Later today I'm heading to an annual meeting that the GW English department holds for PhD students who intend to go on the academic job market, and in the lead up to this year's meeting I've been thinking quite a bit about the disjunction between the "trans-" or "inter-" or "cross-" scholarship that many of us would like to see (and encourage graduate students to pursue) and the professional categories that we are obliged to articulate when publicizing academic positions. If I can just speak from a literary standpoint here, I see that (sub)fields with implicit "trans-" elements do appear on the JIL each year - e.g. World Literature, Transatlantic Literature, etc. -- but for the most part literary job ads are more likely to begin with a Very Stodgy Description (e.g. "Early Modern English Literature") with the option of some sort of interesting "trans-" qualification, clarification, or elaboration in the ensuing blurb ("with interests in interdisciplinary approaches..." [or fill in the trans-whatever blanks here]). The quirky academic jobseeker who is earnestly "trans-" oriented -- e.g. someone in any department or program who works across languages or nations or historical periods or whose scholarship incorporates literary analysis and (say) cultural studies, theory, different types of media, music, anthropology, natural sciences, etc. -- faces the question of how to frame her or his work in such way that it conforms to (or convincingly seems to inhabit) a "proper" disciplinary body.
This brings me back to Duggan's notion of academic disciplines as zombies. What I find so powerful about this metaphor is the (threatening, uneasy) corporeality it grants to academic disciplines. As much as we claim to be "post-" disciplinary, certain distinctions simply refuse to die, and indeed they "feed off" the living for their own survival. Their undead agency has material consequences not only for how we think about and conduct research but also the more practical choices that students face (in any stage, as they consider possible life-paths); and the livelihoods of people in academic and academic-adjacent professions can hinge upon whether "the disciplines" (as we know them) endure as disciplines.
So as much as we think about the disciplines as "the zombies of intellectual life right now," are there ways we can address the more pragmatic or systemic ways the zombie-disciplines shape our pedagogy, mentorship, and the risks we take in our own work (individually or in collaboration)? Toying with new language that gets us beyond "trans-" and "inter-" disciplinary mindsets is a start [e.g., the BABEL Meeting description that playfully invokes cruising among disciplines (adapting Muñoz) opens up many great possibilities here]. Will there ever be a day when the professional discourses we employ -- in job descriptions, cover letters, and the like -- actively reflect the most current ways we are conceiving knowledge? How might our own professional discourses actually change the role that the zombie-disciplines play in our professional, personal, and collective lives?
[*] Robert M. Stein notes (in reference to medieval literary studies and comparative literature) that both fields “[bear] the burden of … nationalist ghost[s]” and “[preserve] national boundaries in the act of comparison even as [they] would transgress them in theory.” “Multilingualism,” in Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English, ed. Paul Strohm (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008), at 35.