Friday, October 05, 2012

Let's FAIL together, yeah yeah YEAH! *


[Hi there, please read Karl's post!]

Post-BABEL: Co-Disciplinarity, or, We're All In This Together

Failing Together

Failure is much on my mind these days.

Not just because of THIS, but because of a recent visit to our campus from J. Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP, 2011) and the brand-spanking-new Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Beacon Press, 2012). [See this video about Jack's week-long residency at the GW English department; note what Jack says about talking across disciplines and the importance of the humanities, at 2:10.]

For those of you who might not be familiar with his work, J. Jack Halberstam is unabashedly anti-disciplinary; if academic life were an animated Pixar film, the disciplines just might be ominous and threatening sharks and the kooky literary-cultural critic its queer fish-protagonist. In Jack's lecture earlier this week, Halberstam carefully distinguished "Lady Gaga" (the recording artist and performer) from the broader notion of "going gaga" -- something one could provisionally define as engaging in wild, crazy, and/or unintelligible modes of performance. This talk examined (among other things) the purported "failure" of #Occupy demonstrations and anarchist modes of collective disruption. Jack points out that such demonstrations might be seen as "failures" by some people -- in that these movements don't appear to produce concrete outcomes -- yet such manifestations aren't actually striving toward a known goal or seeking to articulate any univocal set of demands. They are social performances agitating to perpetually (re)remind us that another world is possible -- even if we don't know (or might never know!) what shape it would take.

Halberstam, in this anarchist mode of agitation, calls for the end of the English department as we know it; disciplines (as Foucault suggests) constrain knowledge and reproduce particular forms of mastery -- we need to think more creatively across languages, cultures, times, engage in high theory and low theory, and "go gaga" on the university itself.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jeffrey and other colleagues with Jack over dinner after his talk, and the conversation inevitably turned to "the fate of the university." Is it time to call for the end of English as a discipline? In my department we might already be "post-English" -- that is, we not only deal with the complexity of literatures in Anglophone settings across time, but more broadly speaking we engage in the study of language, culture, and theory in transnational, comparative, and global frameworks. But would we ever be so bold as to re-christen ourselves "Global Literary and Cultural Studies and Theory" (etc. etc.) ? Probably not -- but the reasons for NOT doing so are manifold: for some, this boils down to a belief there really is "something special" that we can gain by examining literature (literary history, literary theory); for others (and these things are not mutually exclusive) there's a worry that an expansive designation like that would fail to distinguish us from the policy-oriented professional schools that already seem to claim such prominence (something humanists are acutely aware of in DC). I happen to appreciate a degree of flexibility-within-structure: under the unassuming and (disarmingly) commonsense designation of "English," we are each able to each do our own thing -- from more "traditional" historicist literary work to "cutting edge" theory and cultural studies and everything in between (note the deliberate scare quotes throughout this statement by the way). There are ways, in other words, to rework disciplinarity from within, and (to some extent) do so under the radar.

Two Visions

Where might this blog entry be going? I'd like to think about where the post-BABEL conversation has gone over the past week or so -- and where it might take us -- through two different images.

Above: behold the stunning cover to the BABEL 2012 program (entire program available for download here). Featured here is an image by Lori Nix; I greatly admire this artist for using a meticulous craft of miniaturization to create evocative photographs of post-apocalyptic urban spaces.

As well-suited as this photograph is for the title of BABEL 2012 Meeting, this image ultimately struck me as way too bleak in capturing the spirit of the event itself. In my mind this gorgeously detailed mural captures my sense of what BABEL was all about [click to embiggen; see full hi-res image here].

This mural (a detail from "The Prologue and the Promise" by Robert McCall) once appeared in the Horizons pavilion in Disney World's EPCOT center (part of its "Future World" attraction, which permanently closed in 1999). One might say that McCall's utopian vision is "dated" in its style and fashions, and it is not without certain conceptual limitations. As much as this mural embraces a multiethnic society that includes non-Western cultures, its left-to-right unfolding scripts a teleological model of scientific and cultural progression -- only one "line" of history here -- and people at the "climax" of this timeline who gaze toward an unspecified source of light rising above a groovy space-age Minas Tirith comprise what appears to be a normative Western nuclear family: a blond, able-bodied social unit consisting of a man, woman, three children, and a dog.

While we might take issue with certain aspects of this mural, what I like about McCall's detailed vision here is a dynamic sense of collective striving, and its portrayal of what I might call (for the purposes of this blog posting) "co-disciplinarity" -- a being-together and becoming-together in, through, and among varied modes of knowledge and different cultural/social orientations towards the world. While it's easy to view this image as naively utopian, the light and dark portions of this panoramic vision (which you can see when you view the entire mural; again see here) could suggest a range of unanticipated effects that result from radical modes of becoming-together: yes, there are the positive resonances of "co-disciplinarity" (collaboration, progress, pleasure, belonging), but we might also think about its unintended negative effects too (a broad sense of threat, vulnerability and "co-dependency," jealously, failure, or persisting exclusions).


What I find so nice about coming-together-across-disciplines via the "co-" (rather than "inter-" or "multi-" or even "trans-") is the idea of simultaneity and concurrence as well the term's unintended resonances and connotations. If co-disciplinarity suggests "co-dependency," so be it: we might be well served to think about striving among disciplines as a form of collective caregiving, attention to many modes of experience, and enabling forms of collective change. Co-disciplinarity -- to gesture towards disability studies -- might be a mode of articulation for disciplinary orientations with nonstandard bodies; as Eileen states in a Facebook status relating a dream she had post-BABEL, we might "create a new university as a work of art...developing new embodied social practices...and the citizenship model would be global and nomadic."

When I reflect upon the BABEL conference (which seems so long ago already!), I realized how wonderfully the plenaries enacted modes of co-disciplinarity, each through a different type of configuration: through Jeffrey and Lindy we witnessed an improvised and stimulating conversation between a humanist and a scientist (more HERE); the next day offered two individual presentations with themes that implicitly intertwined (Jane Bennett on sympathy; David Kaiser on collaboration and "productive failure") and BABEL concluded with two different co-presentations: one by public art instillation team sans fa├žon (see the "Limelight" installation!) and one by Carolyn Dinshaw & Marget Long that each conjoined what we'd typically consider "academic" and "artistic" modes of thinking.

Beyond the "event" of the academic conference, we can rethink our ongoing work in the university itself and the perceived boundaries between "it" and "everything else" in any number of ways: from teaching free public courses in local communities to open-access publishing and building meaningful connections with the so-called "para-academy" and "alt-ac" worlds (and ugh, those terms really bug me as they posit the corporate university as the norm and everything else as deviance -- but I don't know what else to use at this point).

As I see it, the BABEL conference "cruises in the ruins of the university," but (to evoke another foundational medieval associational form) we can also thrive and strive through the pleasures of an open confraternity: reinventing medieval models, we can reconfigure ourselves into a fully inclusive community that encourages acts of scholarly mercy, fosters earnest engagement in the world, and enacts mutual care. Whether or not a newly configured (in)corporation can ever be achieved, let us at least try, even if things don't work out. Let us boldly fail where no one has failed before.

* In case you didn't catch the reference, that tile is an allusion to this excellent song performance (starting at 1:00).


Eileen Joy said...

It's like you read my mind/heart, or something.

Anonymous said...
failure/experimentation as part of learning is vital, see the related works of Donald Schon on training reflective practitioners. The looming question seems to be how literally/far will folks be willing to go beyond the yokes (and the perks!)of the academy?

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Eileen: Little did you know that I actually *implanted* that post-BABEL Facebook dream in your brain, "Inception"-style.

@dmf: yes, that is a big and important question. Kaiser's talk on "hippies saving science" made the great point that some people can innovate and take bold intellectual risks (at fist) out of necessity, precisely b/c they aren't "gainfully employed" or don't have access to mainstream institutional structures. When it comes to your question re: people within the academy, the level of risk-taking and "un-tethering" one is willing to pursue certainly depends on the individual. Academic tenure (at least the way it works in the US) was supposed to be in place precisely to enable people to take risks. And in many ways you could say you're able to create a stronger platform (louder megaphone) to agitate for change if one holds a secure, "legible" academic position. I guess I'd say it's both/and - we can agitate for change from within and from without.

Anonymous said...

jh, certainly there is still much, tho less than ever, freedom in tenure and yet not much evidence for widespread changes/experimentation in the life's-work of many (most?) profs.

As for a stronger/louder megaphone I see no evidence for this.

And sure inside and out but what will such efforts be measured against?
all good stuff to be wrestling with...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for this thoughtful call to companionship, Jonathan! In my own portion of the plenary I used the Greek "sym" (as in feeling together, sym-pathy) in a way that I hope resonates with what you've written here: shared endeavor, yes, and shared affect as well.

Anonymous said...

Are there really only two problems with English renaming itself "Global Literary and Cultural Studies and Theory"??? The intellectual arrogance that fantasy implies is staggering. And yet surprisingly typical.

Academic disciplines and the departments structured around them play an important function that many English scholars probably fail to recognize: they defend smaller disciplines against the encroachments of large ones that imagine the skills they teach are somehow translatable to the world.

I know that isn't the intent of Jonathan's post. In fact, the intention appears to be the exact opposite: confraternity.

Still, it's important to remember that the dismantling of the university may be at the expense of disciplinary differences and modes of intellectual rigor that are immensely important to the study of the Middle Ages.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Jeffrey: Yes, thanks for that! Sympathy, a "feeling with" among disciplines -- as you've suggested -- is certainly something I'm after here.

@Anonymous: I do appreciate that you see my intention really is confraternity across disciplines, I do want to stress that that bit on the grandiose hypothetical renaming of English is at its core a call for intellectual *humility* -- I write above that we would NOT be so "bold" (presumptuous) to ever re-name the department in that way, and that there are *manifold* (not just two!) reasons this is the case. Yes, I truly do appreciate that English departments shouldn't simply presume they can do all the important things that other disciplines do. In that hypothetical renaming I was more trying to convey how a number of "English" departments have become so internally diverse (some might say incoherent!) so as to act as a sort of humanistic and institutional "kitchen sink" umbrella category under which many types of intellectual pursuits can and do occur -- varied pursuits that extend way beyond the purvey of just "studying literary texts written in English."

As a medievalist "housed" in English who works on multilingual texts, I am well aware that other disciplines -- language and literature departments, linguistics (social and historical), history, philosophy, and many others -- perform very real and important work and English should not act as a humanistic discipline that somehow "bulldozes" or subsumes others. In stressing confraternity, I'm earnestly trying to convey this sense that we are all in the same boat, and we should *talk more to each other* and bring our many respective modes of intellectual inquiry into conversation -- and, hopefully, put our heads together in meaningful ways to pursue shared endeavors. Creating this sort of intellectual confraternity is risky -- and can indeed provoke entirely legitimate and understandable forms of pushback -- but I do think it's worth a shot.

LanglandinSydney said...

I'm interested: is it really the case that the disciplines aren't already cooperating a lot? I see it everywhere and throughout time. Jonathan can you explain what about your vision is new (if I'm right in taking you to be saying that)?

Also: how is "transnational, transglobal cultural studies" any less of a discipline than "English"? If it's just another disciplinary formation (as I think it is), is it any the worse for that? Why the worry about disciplines? I don't see it. Whatever name you put on what we do, there's great stuff going on all over the place, whether folks do transglobal oceanic and disability studies or the rules governing the Middle English alliterative long line--right? Surely it's not a choice between those two: we want both! (Right?) --Lawrence W