Thoughts on disciplinary agency and interdisciplinarity

A response by Paula Fourie to ‘The fate of the Disciplines’, James Chandler and Arnold J. Davidson (Eds), Critical Inquiry, Summer 2009,Vol. 35, No. 4.

‘The fate of the disciplines’ is an issue of Critical Enquiry that explores a central issue voiced by James Chandler in his introduction, namely that the structure of the university was solidified in a specific time and place and that, given the opportunity, one would design a different university system today.  This debate focuses around the issues of disciplinarity versus interdisciplinarity, with contributions in this volume standing on both sides of the divide.

Chandler first of all defines a discipline as a concept that is distinguished not only on the basis of a set of established methodologies, but also as something that carries connotations of identity, before chronicling the advent of interdisciplinarity in the academe and introducing some of the debates that have centered around it.   Opening this volume are two essays by Robert Post and Judith Butler, concerned not only with defining the concept of a ‘discipline’, but also centering on the possible loss of academic freedom through the proliferation of interdisciplinary studies.

Following Post and Butler’s articles, there are eight essays debating disciplinary practice and change from the ‘disciplines’ of science studies, cinema studies, theology, philology and visual arts.  Lorraine Daston reflects on the gradual drift between the recent disciplines, history of science and science studies, noting that a discipline is reified on the basis of its use of an established set of methodologies.  Mario Biagioli actively calls for interdisciplinary partnerships between the humanities and science in order to ‘redeem’ the former, his view on interdisciplinarity projects being that they problem-orientated research clusters that are frequently too short-lived to merit institutionalization.

The two essays regarding theology, by Saba Mahmood and Amy Hollywood, illustrate through repeated claims of contemporary relevance the difficulties faced by a waning discipline that was once considered the pinnacle of the university.  Likewise, the essays on philology and the classics, respectively by Sheldon Pollock and François Hartog reflect anxiety about the future of their disciplines in the wake of capitalist concerns and modernity.  This anxiety lies so deep that both Pollock and Hartog deny and lament the current disciplinarity of their disciplines, with Pollock stating that ‘we have failed spectacularly to conceptualize our own disciplinarity’ (p. 947), and Hartog that fragmentation has rendered the Classics ‘well outside disciplinary boundaries’ (p. 966).

The two articles by Dudley Andrew and Gertrud Koch are concerned with one of the newest disciplines, film studies.  Dudly shows that there was some resistance from the critical public to have the study of film enter the institution and become disciplined.  In contrast to many of the contributors to this volume who regard formalized or uniform methodology as a prerequisite for the constitution of a discipline, he takes a subject-orientated approach that regards film itself as a disciplining factor.  The articles on the arts by W. J. T. Mitchell and Bill Brown focus on the question of whether it is possible or even desirable to discipline creative arts.  Brown in particular deals with the notion of artworks as measurable research output within an academic institution.  The final two articles in ‘The fate of the Disciplines’ once again deal with the broader issues surrounding interdisciplinarity.  David Wellbery attempts to use systems theory to explain disciplinary formation and interaction, while Marshall Sahlins is concerned with the influence of capitalist aspirations on the organization of the university.

Throughout the pages of this volume, contributors reflect on the causes for interdisciplinary research projects and their effect on existing disciplines and university structures.  Several contributors lament the proliferation of interdisciplinarity centers and institutions that have arisen to breach the challenges posed by traditional research environments, most notably Sahlins who comments that ‘all that clutters is not gold’ (p. 1017).  Besides channeling funding away from established disciplines, the institutionalization of interdisciplinary projects is seen by some to present a threat to academic freedom.  Post argues that the upholding of academic norms within disciplines ensures the production of expert knowledge that can lay claim to academic autonomy from external forces.  However, Butler shows this to be a difficult situation, arguing that, without critical enquiry (which often is forced to assume a rogue position in relation to existing thought) these selfsame norms become redundant and detrimental to true academic freedom.

Wellbery’s essay attempts to explain disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity with reference to Niklas Luhmann’s application of systems theory.   He regards disciplines as organic systems capable of reproducing themselves and, in contrast to regarding a discipline as founded on either methodology or subject, locates ‘the unity of the discipline’ in the ‘recursive connectivity of its operations as a self-reproducing social system’ (p. 993).  From this perspective, disciplines determine their course by continually evaluating the relevance or irrelevance of available discourses, following circular paths that are unhindered by static boundaries.  Far from a laissez fair approach, Wellbery distinguishes between different types of systems coupling as conceptualized by Luhmann, ranging from ‘occasional interdisciplinarity’ to ‘problem-oriented interdisciplinarity’ and ‘transdisciplinarity’ (pp. 988-9). Informed by cybernetics and Foucault’s discourse on interdisciplinarity, Wellbery moreover emphasizes that constraint, as embodied in disciplinary distinctions, becomes a prerequisite for communication in complex systems.

‘The fate of the disciplines’ contains contributions from scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, all brought together to share their thoughts on disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity.   Seeing as this in itself constitutes an interdisciplinary endeavor, I set out to discover if the study of interdisciplinarity had spawned any institutes as yet.  This lead me to the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity housed at the University of North Texas, who pride themselves on being the first center focused on the issue of interdisciplinarity itself.  According to their website (, this center is committed to providing resources to scholars engaged in interdisciplinary studies, promoting experiments across disciplines, recognizing institutional barriers to interdisciplinarity, establishing indicators capable of measuring the success or failure of interdisciplinary projects and ‘developing a set of best practices for interdisciplinarity’.  Concerning their focused topic and the desire to develop methodology, one is forced to conclude that this center is concerned with disciplining interdisciplinary studies.

The contributions in ‘The fate of the disciplines’ have shown that the relationship between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity is a contentious one, a problem around which scholars from different disciplines have gathered. Ironically, this seems to be leading to the formation of a new discipline, and one wonders whether its institutionalization is merited, considering, as shown by Wellbery, the often-transitory nature of transdisciplinary projects.  Disciplines are plastic and subject to evolution, but as argued by Hunt in Chandler, interdisciplinarity ‘depends on the certainty of disciplinary boundaries’ (p. 741).  The one cannot exist without the other.

Wellbery’s hypothesis of systemic contact makes it possible to engage with various discourses that we deem relevant to our own subject matter and interests, yet conscious of the temporary boundaries of our malleable academic communities or disciplines.   As to Post’s concern regarding the detrimental effect of interdisciplinarity on the production of expert knowledge and subsequent academic autonomy, I would like to argue that the purpose of undergraduate and graduate programs is not first and foremost the mastery of a set of ideas or methods, but rather the cultivation of a critical mind that knows how to apply itself to concepts and problems.  The judicious engagement with borrowed theory may, considering that complex systems interact with their environment on a non-linear basis, result in unexpected and fruitful results and not in a watering-down of expertise.

This interaction should be seen as no more threatening than the movement of solvent molecules through the thin membrane of a biological cell.   Such a membrane is selectively permeable, just as a discipline has agency in choosing which of the available discourses to interact with.   Moreover, osmosis and diffusion are necessary to ensure the vitality of a cell and to enable the cellular walls to regulate its internal pressure.  As Wellbery has shown, far from merely negative forces, control and restriction should be seen as prerequisites to effective communication.  Perhaps this could provide a model for interdisciplinary scholars lamenting disciplinary boundaries, just as it should remind those opposed to interdisciplinary projects that preventing movement through their walls only starves the discipline from within.


2 responses to “Thoughts on disciplinary agency and interdisciplinarity

  1. Your summary is a good read: a remarkable synthesis of an enormous amount of reading. I disagree, though, with both you and Wellbery on your respective closing statements.

    Wellbery is not as “informed” by Foucault as you suggest. He in fact argues against the “desperate claims” of hermeneutic violence made by Foucault and Barthes in their inaugural lectures at the Collège de France: claims that an authoritarian spirit is evoked in any act of naming something. As Foucault and Barthes would have it, naming a discipline would be an enforcement of heterogeneity and normativitiy, a censure or erasure of difference. Wellbery sees a misappropriation of words like “control” and “regulation” in their discourse, words they borrowed out of context from the discourse on cybernetics.

    Your holistic image of disciplines functioning according to a self-regulative cellular model seems to agree tacitly with Wellbery’s statement that there is “real political work to be done” (p.994) to counter violence and fascism in the “real” world, that such problems and solutions should not be looked for in the theory/ies of disciplinarity. Perhaps though, Wellbery might just disagree with your cellular systems model of disciplines; he says as much when he notes the usual anodyne appeals to holism that systems theorists make (p.987). Metaphors of cells and ecosystems often argue for “healthy” or functional environments when all they actually do is mask chaos and randomness.

    I disagree with the idea that an Invisible Hand (or Membrane) is keeping a system such as a discipline in check; i.e. your view that disciplines themselves would have “agency in choosing” theoretical engagements. Surely scholars and their readers are the agents, not the disciplines themselves? Global market systems were supposed to regulate themselves but the greed of nameable human agents forced their atrophy. The same is possible for disciplines. I’m sure that some interpretations of systems theory are keen to attribute an agency of self to an abstract named thing (“reification”) such as a discipline. But one should keep in mind that these abstract things are usually reducible to the selfish input of human beings.

    Perhaps you agree with Wellbery’s call for disciplinary regulation to continue as it has within his specific American (University of Chicago) context. I would, however, argue aggressively if his waiver for theoretical activism were extended to your South African environment. In South Africa many of the cells never even worked to begin with; they were indeed “starved from within” from the go. And those that did work were forced to evolve within strict predetermined political parameters. In a country with a complex history of hermeneutic and “real” violence the boundaries of disciplines needed rigid enforcement and regulation, much more than any selective membrane could ever achieve. In functional academic environments the patrolling of the margins would have been achieved through peer review. But in South Africa there is plenty of need to shout “fascist” when disciplinary boundaries were, and often still are, enforced according to any number of seemingly benign theories or norms, all of which almost certainly brushed up against our own little monster holistic systems theory – apartheid – which was disseminated by human agents such as Nico Diederichs, Hendrik Verwoerd, Gerrie Eloff, Piet Meyer, Jan Bouws, J.P. Malan, etc., incidentally with a not too inconsiderable vocabulary of naturalistic/biological imagery.

    The challenges to dismantling a fascist history lie not only in what Wellbery would call “real political work”. In a country with such a cruel history of words as our own, these efforts should also engage with things as seemingly irrelevant and harmless as the theory/ies of disciplinarity.

  2. Thank you for your in-depth response to this post. I found it thought provoking specifically because of your application of this discourse to our South African context, and would like to share some further thoughts on this matter.

    Firstly, Wellbury is indeed informed by Foucault in the sense that he offers a reading of Foucault ‘through the lens of Luhmann’, arguing that, when the former writes that ‘a discipline is a principle of control for the production of discourse’, he is ascribing a too severe rigidity to the operation of this discursive control (p. 990). Arguing against the inflexibility implied by Foucault, Wellbery draws on systems theory, which considers the ‘learning capacity’ and ‘evolutionary nature’ of disciplines (p. 990). Wellbery states that whether known to him or not, Foucault is borrowing terms from cybernetic theory; who in their original use operate flexibly within the conditions of complexity as desirable prerequisites for communication. In Foucault’s application, their use becomes self-aggrandizing in that they cast critical enquiry in a radical, almost revolutionary role.

    I don’t know whether Wellbery would disagree with my cellular model or not. However, contrary to your argument that emphasizes the agency of individuals, he states that his consideration of disciplines rests on systems theory, according to which ‘social systems are not made up of people’ (p. 987). Instead of being reduced to individual humans, they ‘have their being as an ongoing, recursively self- validating, self-correcting, and, in every case, self-referring series of communicative events’ (p. 987). Naturally there are individuals involved, but the emphasis here is on interaction and communication that cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. The ‘invisible hand’ that you conjure out of my image of the cellular membrane would imply a meta-narrative or larger mind at work, indeed as you write, something that keeps the discipline ‘in check’. I believe that there is no such thing, but that disciplines should be free to engage with whatever discourses are deemed interesting or relevant. Far from being self-regulatory, to me, this membrane merely stands as a disciplinary demarcation, and not a blockage.

    I agree with you that this discourse needs to, to borrow words from Christine Lucia, ‘come down’ off the ‘corridors of American academe’ and be applied to our own context in South Africa. However, you seem to infer from my cellular model that I regard ‘theoretical activism’ as unnecessary. This is only unnecessary within a system that is allowed to operate without external ideological involvement. I agree that Wellbery’s waiver of theoretical activism is misplaced (especially in our own context) and that the walls of many of our disciplines have thus far indeed been blocked by political parameters and enforced by totalitarian control. So by all means, I will join you in shouting ‘fascist’ if this will aid the unblocking of these walls.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s