Tuesday, December 2, 2008

theories of ids

In the article “Being Interdisciplinary Is So Very Hard to Do” Stanley Fish begins by examining the critique of left culturalist theory on boundaries and hierarchies formed within and between academic disciplines and institutional structures. According to Fish, much of this critique on the current arrangement of boundaries stems from the belief that the institutional and academic structures are constructed by parties interested in maintaining the status quo by means of a repressive political agenda. In order to break free of repressive boundaries, critics suggest that each discourse of knowledge be situated, understood, and critically examined in the context of the institutional, cultural, and historical forces from which the emerged. As knowledge formations transform and dissolve and disciplines are “freed” from their bonds, perspectives will broaden and discourse will be unconstrained. Interdisciplinary studies, by definition, does not respect the boundaries inherent in disciplines, and seeks to widen perspectives and examine the processes by which disciplines and divisions emerge. To many radical critics of disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity is an “assault on those boundaries and on the entire edifice of hierarchy and power they reflect and sustain” (Fish 242).
Fish poses that this vision of interdisciplinarity is incompatible with its accompanying epistemology – that meaning and knowledge are not simply “there”, but are produced by a system that escapes the foundations which it enables. In other words, the system which enables knowledge formations can not be presented, is ignorant of itself, and always “excludes more than it reveals” (Fish 243). If bringing to light the constructions and conditions of knowledge depends on viewing them through a perspective similarly constructed and veiled, then interdisciplinarity cannot free us from bound knowledge; new boundaries will be formed and knowledge formations will continue to be constrained within historical, institutional, and cultural contexts. If interdisciplinarity is defined by the breaking free of such cages, then interdisciplinarity understood in accordance with this epistemological view is quite impossible.
How, then, can culturally determined perspectives and knowledges be surveyed? If the concepts and vocabularies within my fields of study define themselves in relation to one another as well as shape my own thought processes, is there a possibility of being interdisciplinary? These problems are particularly relevant to my course of study, as I am examining processes by which power structures and social movements evolve, cultures clash and interact, and revolutions succeed. A shifting academic structure greatly parallels a shifting social structure. If it is impossible to break out of the “prison houses of our various specialties” (Fish 244), how will the walls between academia and the “outside world” be broken? If we are again to be enclosed by partiality of knowledge in our attempts to free ourselves from such boundaries, will we continually be dominated by powers out of our reach, oppressed by our own partial and situated knowledges? Will any social revolution repress us by new and unforeseen boundaries, institutional orders, structures of power? These questions are central both to this article and to the study of social change and power.
I must agree with Stanley Fish that this particular view of radical interdisciplinarity is incompatible with the epistemology accompanying it. I do not believe, however, that revolutionary reconstruction of disciplinary boundaries, and of larger society, is fruitless, impossible, or should be viewed as merely reshaping the cages we inhabit. Although our knowledge is always partial and constructed, we can change many of the channels through which it is formed. I reconcile these problems of radical political interdisciplinarity with this epistemological view by posing that revolution is to be understood in terms of a constant process of reconstituting boundaries in spite of, and in light of, the obfuscatory nature of knowledge. As long as boundaries exist within knowledge, a revolutionary potential exists within those boundaries. Interdisciplinarity, then, is always a revolutionary avenue and instrument, and is not limited to movement between the spaces between academic disciplines; it is a character of people moving and learning in the world, reconstructing boundaries and knowledges to suit their needs.
A goal within my own field of study is the transgression of boundaries between academia and public participation. My own purpose for individually designing an interdisciplinary degree is to equip myself with knowledge and theory necessary to guide my political activity outside an academic sphere after graduation. I wish to create new ways in which to know and move in the world. By constructing knowledges in an interdisciplinary, or integrative manner, boundaries can be broken, new pathways can emerge, and we can each participate in many disciplines or knowledge formations in order to shape and be shaped by an ever-changing world.
By studying social theory in relation to anthropology, history in relation to philosophy, new questions will arise, new boundaries will be formed and broken, and new possibilities for understanding the wholeness of the world will emerge. The wholeness of the world will remain hidden, partially concealed, but always filled with revolutionary potential. I must regularly ask myself, in what forms will newly constructed edifices of knowledge arise, by what means can I alter the paths of their construction to attend to our present dilemmas, and in what way is my participation in this system of formation affecting the change I wish to see?

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