This blog post will explore the nature of interdisciplinary studies and the concept of the non-humanities. I’ll be responding to a question that is part of the round table I am participating in at the “Navigating Complexity Across the Humanities” Conference organized by the Graduate Students at McGill University’s English Department. The question is based on an introduction I sent to the round table organizers. Since I will only have 5 minutes to develop my ideas, I figured a blog post would be about the right length.
As several strains of contemporary theory direct us towards discussions of the nonhuman (animals, plants, ecosystems, even bacteria), how might we think about redefining some of the basic assumptions about “The Humanities?” In what ways do these theoretical shifts (accompanied by new forms of information technologies) impact our research methods? And how do we approach our pedagogical responsibility to communicate/promote these redefinitions?
As I reflected on the theme of this round table “Navigating Academics,” images of dank, dark corridors leading to dead ends, kept running through my mind. For the most part, the humanities are an indoor discipline, rarely interacting with the physical, material world of non-human living beings. According to Michel Serres, the humanities have a difficult time coming to terms with “le dur” (the hardness) of the sciences since they deal mainly with “le doux” (the softness of the immaterial world of ideas and thoughts). New questions about the non-human world are however beginning to change this. Animal Studies and Environmental Literary theory, the two areas I work in, are keenly aware of the need to engage with scientific discoveries that illustrate the similarities between animals and humans or that emphasize the multiple, complex relationships between ourselves and our environments. What does it mean to study, for example, Kakfa’s ‘The Report to an Academy,” in light of the fact that primates have their own culture, language and moral lives? How does knowing that other animals are capable of consciousness and have their own world (Umwelt) affect the concepts and frameworks of philosophical thought? To what extent do these questions trouble the assumptions of the humanities in terms of humanist thinking, human specificity, and disciplinary foundations? Or are the humanities still, as Cary Wolfe puts it, “human, all too human”?
To further explore how we might do the humanities differently, I’m going to ask that we take a stroll down the dark hallways of Hegelian dialectics (or maybe these would be brightly lit, depending on how you feel about Hegel!) and ask what a “non-humanities” might look like. I realize that the idea of the “non-humanities” is untenable practically speaking (can you imagine trying to get university administrators to promote the “non-humanities”?!), but it might just allow us to come back to the humanities with a different conceptual framework. Exploring the idea of a “non-humanities” momentarily shifts some attention away from the sciences-humanities, two cultures, debate. To study the non-human, the humanities do not need to become more like the sciences. (Note in passing: Some scholars reject the concept of the non-human and prefer the expression more-than-human but for this exercise and in my own work, I use the term non-human in order to maintain a dialectical tension.) So could they become more like a non-humanities? By this, I do not mean what the humanities are not – i.e. they are not a business, they are not empirical, they are not … fill in the blank. Rather, I am proposing a non-humanities that takes its lead from the non-human. While we can never shed our human perception of the world, we might model our work on the imagined complexity, density, intricacy, depth, interconnectedness of the world, whether this be the healthy bacteria living in our intestines, the maple tree’s root system, the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. This passage through the perception of non-human others does not mean we shed the humanities but rather that we come back to them changed, less sure of our disciplinary practices and knowledge claims.
As for the implications for research and teaching, I don’t think we’ve come to terms yet with how the animal question and the ecological question require us to do things differently. I’ll first start with teaching. While I would love to claim that interdisciplinary studies are necessary and useful at any level, my personal experience has shown me otherwise. Students in a first year animal studies literary class had difficulty navigating the labyrinth of interdisciplinary studies and so the connection between the humanities and the non-human remained unclear at best to them. On the other hand, in the fourth year environmental thought class I am currently teaching, students from a wide variety of disciplines have clearly captured the links in this case between literature, culture and ecology. This makes me wonder whether some grounding in a discipline is not first necessary to then be able to do interdisciplinary studies. As for navigating the labyrinth of academics, here too, interdisciplinary studies have at times lead to dead ends. Looking for a publisher for my doctoral thesis (nature and ecology in the work of an anthropologist, a novelist, and a philosopher, all three French thinkers, no less, and a text written in French!), I realized that the book did not fit in the categories of catalogues of traditional, academic publishers. So I ended up publishing with a European non-academic publisher with no peer review process. This has been a dead end as far as academic standards are concerned. The rise of animal studies and environmental studies has opened up to some extent the possibilities for publishing texts that do not fit into one, single disciplinary category. The book I am currently co-editing on French thinking about animals includes contributions from many different disciplines and has been welcomed with open arms by the editor of the Animal Series at the Michigan State University Press.
This brings me to my (rather too hasty and hopeful) conclusion that the animal question and the ecological question will somehow reconfigure the hallways and corridors of academics so that there will be more possibilities for interdisciplinary studies.