Friday, August 17, 2012

Academic Disciplines are Zombies


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.


Anonymous said...

as long as the administrative side (tenure processes etc) of dept work stays the same it doesn't really matter much how the vocabulary of faculty in papers/presentations trends. The day that academics actually and substantially change how they organize themselves will be the day that these zombies will be slain (until of course those new practices get ossified), I'm not holding my breath.

Kate Koppelman said...

Great post, Jonathan. Thank you. I've been thinking about the metaphor of the zombie for a while now--and talked at NCS about how it might also be an apt metaphor for certain critical practices as well, in particular, feminism. At K'Zoo a few years back I suggested that our notion of the Middle Ages is one that might be productively viewed through the lens of a "revenant logic."

For me, it's useful not only to use the modern notion of a zombie to think about relationships between pasts, presents, and futures, but to acknowledge that in the Middle Ages, the term for a body that came back to life was a revenant--a far more suggestive term, I think, since it does not include the brain-eating element that virtually defines the figure for us now. The revenant suggests a constant returning--and for that reason, I think it allows us to consider how movement (change, proximity, distance) influenced all sorts of notions scholars consider central to the study of the period (subjectivity, masculinity, femininity, sovereignty, to name those I've thought most about). Further, I've become particularly interested in how--even in our modern zombies--we can see a sort of confluence of subject and (once beloved) object. This might help us understand the ways in which we continue to adhere to categories like the "academic discipline" in ways that seem, at times, counter-intuitive.

Might we, in some (many) ways, enjoy being surrounded by zombies? Once you start looking for them, they do seem to be everywhere--and most of the time, we aren't running from them as fast as we could.

Kate Koppelman said...

PS: Readers might also be interested in Ulrich Beck's musings on "Zombie Categories"--thoughts that I found quite helpful:

Josh Eyler said...

Great post, Jonathan. I think the zombie analogy also has resonance for the job market itself, especially when looked at from the angles of consumption and violence. Many grad. students with whom I work see the market as a monster lurking in the shadows ready to defeat or be defeated.

LanglandinSydney said...

Great post Jonathan --but is it perhaps a bit either / or? I love disciplines. For one, there'd be no "trans"-disciplines without them. For another, they're great. How about both / and? Like, both BABEL and the Medieval Academy? -Lawrence

Jonathan Hsy said...

Really great to see such varied responses here! I'm actually responding to everyone (so far) in this comment - which is actually meant to be read continuously, dispute the formatting.

@Kate Koppelman: A few readers have brought my attention to Beck's "zombie categories" - thanks for this; I wasn't aware this was a critical term before I wrote this posting! I *really* like the way you are thinking re: a "revenant logic" vis-a-vis the past - and you're totally right; the revenant's "constant returning" gets us to think in interesting ways about motion and associated issues of change, proximity, distance. It might be interesting for you to see Rick Godden's blog posting on Modern Medieval: (among many other things, this entry also references a talk re: "zombie categories" by Michelle Warren - not sure if she's published on any of this yet, but I find that she is always very insightful when unpacking key metaphors that we use to structure thought.)

It just so happens (hope she doesn't mind the shout-out here!) that one of my graduate students, Shyama Rajendran, has been doing some really excellent thinking re: the Derridian renevant as figure for linguistic translation, temporality, and complex embodiment (it might be the case that her paper at the BABEL conference touches upon some of this).

I think what attracts me to the *modern* zombie as opposed to the revenant is *precisely* that whole brain-eating thing -- the simultaneously-attractive-and-threatening affective response that the zombie generates in us.

@Josh Eyler makes the point that the modern zombie analogy could resonate with anxieties grad students (academic jobseekers) have about the market itself - and that's really what I had in mind in mobilizing the zombie-figure in this way.

@LanglandinSydney (Lawrence): I should clarify that I'm actually not trying to come across as "anti-" disciplinary here; if anything I really am more of the "both/and" mindset you've suggested! (And the both/and orientation is, I'd say, what the next BABEL meeting is exploring.)

[reached my limit - comment continued in next post]

Jonathan Hsy said...

It is important to remember that each department (program, institution) has its own culture, and (just to provide some context here) I to happen to be in a department that strongly encourages all sorts of "trans-" projects etc. What really underlies my posting from yesterday morning is this question: What is our ethical obligation, as disciplinary practitioners, to the people we teach and mentor? I do worry that we encourage students to pursue "trans-" work that we (and they!) find exciting - but each year we are reminded that the system -- discursive, institutional, financial, etc. -- doesn't (yet) accommodate projects that don't nicely "conform" to clear disciplinary norms. Thus there's always the struggle to "translate" one's "trans-" interests and methods (in a job letter, etc.) into terms that would resonate with the more conventional discipline-bound language and orientation of hiring committees (and all the deans up the chain, etc). On that note:

@dmf - I understand where you're coming from here. In making a call for a "new language" in this post I'm not just referring to theory, or even to new vocabulary in scholarship. I'm really trying to suggest the power for of language (in a job ad for instance) to effect change. And if we can't effect change in language on that level, then I do hope that we can still effect change in our actual hiring practices -- e.g an "English" department can and should be open to hiring people who have "trans-" projects and/or decidedly "trans" degrees in Medieval Studies, Comp Lit, American Studies, etc. -- and not just err on the side of candidates who are easily stamped as "English." Yes, this all does involve openness (and some would) say institutional risk taking.

Maybe it really does come down to Lawrence's both/and comment - I am very grateful for the institutional security that comes with being "housed" in an English department, and I'm *also* quite happy with "English" being a diverse "kitchen soup" category that "does" literature (in many languages) along with theory, theater, film, cultural studies, etc. and everything in between.

Jonathan Hsy said...

*sorry for all the typos above of course - just wanted to get a bunch of thoughts out there...

Anonymous said...

I was around for the 80's identity-politics version of inclusivity/interdisciplinarity and while the faces and research topics changed some the basic modes of organization really have not changed to this day.
One would hope that the ongoing dismantling of the current academy (broadly speaking) by various political and economic powers would be both a wakeup call and a spur to finally try and match organizational actions to scholarly rhetoric but by and large the response seems to be deeper entrenchment, more of the same. Perhaps this is the understandable result of the socialization of faculty?

i said...

The glorious thing about disciplines, at least as far as the humanities are concerned, is that they provide the young learner with a narrative about the past. It doesn't have to be the only narrative, it doesn't have to be a comprehensive or even particularly true narrative, but it's a way of organizing massive amounts of disparate information in a sense-making way.

I am reminded of a story a friend of mine from grad school told me once. She had primarily studied English (though her own work is every kind of trans and ultra, and all sorts of fascinating), but she did study abroad in Spain. During this time, she took a course on Spanish literature. It was the most boring kind of course, she said, but the professor presented the course of Spanish lit from year 0 to the present in a way that she'd never had in English. She said that since then, when she encounters an English literary text, she still mentally plugs it into the Spanish historical timeline so she can see where it fits in with respect to other texts.

Note that I said "young learner." The advanced learner (a state I consider to last until death, ideally) can break out and create all kinds of narratives. Which is right and good. But if the advanced learner wants to eat, chances are s/he will have to teach the young, who often know astonishingly little. (I speak from self-knowledge.) And while it is of course possible to design courses of study that are basically grab bags of random subjects, and while the most brilliant students will probably flourish and make the connections themselves, I think it does a bit of a disservice to most students.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm all for hiring people with dissertations that don't fit in the box, and it is silly to allow the structure of departments to determine the kind of research that is done and published. (Though I fear that often does happen.) But I also think there are good, practical, and dare I say ethical reasons to teach the Bachelor in a structured way, whatever that structure is.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@i - Thanks for your comment; I understand what you're saying. Most of my thinking here has been about advanced (graduate) students and beyond, but you do make great point about disciplines providing important *narratives* for undergraduates in particular.

Something our English dept. is trying to do right now is to take stock of how our majors fare once upon graduation. One issue that has arisen in our meetings etc. is essentially that question: What sort of narrative are our students are drawing from their *overall* course of study in the department? We do have distribution requirements etc., but students can and do take classes randomly and *out of order* (whatever happens to be offered at the time, what stuff fits their schedules, etc.) with the consequence that some might not take courses in Chaucer or "earlier" literature until very *late,* in their studies, e.g. junior or even senior year. The result is that some students can end up "covering their bases" in the major (check off on the req's.) but not necessarily have a good working narrative once it's all done. So I'd agree that as educators we're not necessarily trying to provide "the" narrative - but at least some sense of "a working, point-of-reference" narrative goes a long way.
That being said, I wouldn't want to *over-emphasize* disciplinary narratives either - students in an English dept. can and do learn to think carefully about particular texts and contexts, enter into conversations with others, be curious/daring in their writing, widen their cultural horizons etc. - without having a sense of straight-up "literary history" per se.
As for ethical obligations: one thing we've done in our PhD qualifying exam is add an exercise where the student must present a hypothetical survey course drawn from the student's own reading list of texts in their subfield (say "medieval and early modern studies"). In the thought-experiment of devising a syllabus they are forced to not only think about inter-connections etc. but also think about how to present a diverse range of texts to younger students in a coherent way. The exercise not only can provide one mechanism for our assessment of the PhD candidate (how effectively has this person been reading and thinking about his/her readings as they prepared for the exam?) but it could also provide a "first step" for teaching down the line - the student must imagine transmitting some sort of narrative (however provisional) on to others.

i said...

Jonathan, thanks for your response. I must admit I've never thought of the problem of doing things "out of order," as it were. The Toronto English dept had a good way of dealing with this, I think, by making a survey course mandatory for any degree in English. It was a low-level course, so most students did it near the beginning of their studies. After that, it didn't matter so much what order they took classes in, because some kind of awareness of literary history was there.

I do think there is something to be said for "straight-up literary history" per se, though not in a strictly dogmatic way. My main reasoning for this is that authors tend to think in terms of it too. But I've never really thought it had to be taught in order because from the perspective of literary influence, Aeschylus is as close as Milton.

I have seen no American undergrad programs in English where there was much danger of over-emphasizing disciplinary narratives.

I love the PhD exam question! Of course, to make it really practical, you'd have to have a second question: "Now, because of time constraints, you have to remove two of these texts. Which are they?"

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'm late to the party due to travel, but want to say that similar musings have also crossed my mind. GW used to have a program in Human Sciences that was transdisciplinary and innovative -- but then our PhD students had a hard time getting jobs, since hiring is done through traditional disciplinary and chronological slots. That won't change soon.

But even though they are supposed to be the antithesis of all things human and humane, zombies are not always all bad, either. They do work that can be good. They demonstrate a thriving of a life in another mode, a mode written off as surpassed perhaps but still vital and still full of possibility, even if dangerous.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Thanks for that, Jeffrey. I was hoping you might chime in at some point! What happened with Human Sciences is quite telling - but I do appreciate the positive spin on zombies as well; that we need not think entirely in terms of danger or threat but also entertain the possibility of other modes of thriving.