Interdisciplinary studies and the non-humanities?

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.


Getting started…

So rather than put this off for another year or so, I’m taking one of my student’s advice and starting a blog (probably not the best reason to start a blog, actually). I’m hoping that writing regularly will become a habit as I move into book writing mode.

Starting this first blog feels a little like trying to get that first waffle just right – you don’t want it too thin, you don’t want it to overflow the waffle iron, you don’t want to open the iron too soon. No doubt, I should have spent some time reading about how to create great blog posts. But I’m not actually expecting anyone to read this blog, so I will not follow all the good advice about how to attract the most readers, how to be entertaining, in other words, how to serve up great waffles. Instead, I will outline the function of this blog for my own academic and research needs. Initially, this will be a process of putting ideas on paper, making my own research goals and interests clearer to myself. Eventually, I may use the blog for book reviews, exploring new course ideas, etc.

Some of the subjects that I will explore and that I have been mulling over for a few years now are:

1) The relationship between culture, literature and environment – This is a broad subject that I will narrow down by focusing on the comparative work I’ve been doing, examining French ecological thought in light of North American environmental philosophy. This comparative framework has been a way for me to begin articulating a French écocritique, that is a literary approach to analyzing representations of nature and environment in French contemporary literature. Insisting on cultural differences is easy to do on the surface, while identifying these differences often leads one down the path of stereotypes and caricatures. Ah, yes, French culture: cheese, baguettes, wine, cinema, etc. Fortunately, the literary text complicates any simplified understanding of culture as a homogeneous collection of characteristics or habits or customs. So why even use the adjective “French” if it does not map back onto something tangible and concrete? One response might be that contemporary French literary texts are inscribed – however vaguely or incompletely – in a literary tradition that has its own history (naturalism, realism, surrealism, Nouveau-Roman, etc.), its own set of key characters (Saint-Beuve, Proust, Valéry, Tadié, Brunel, etc.). While this literary history obviously did not develop in isolation, there is a reason French literature is called French literature. Written in French, these texts contain a way of structuring or seeing the world that has something to do with being French. Despite its circularity, this argument outlines a notion of culture that is bound up in language but that remains quite nebulous. This formless entity begins to take form through the work of comparative studies (see Kerry Whiteside’s Divided Natures, or Catherine Ford’s work, or my overview of the state of environmental literary theory in France, etc.) and through the analysis of individual literary texts.

2) The relationship between human animals and non-human animals – Again, I approach this broad subject from a specific perspective by examining the ways in which French contemporary thinkers are currently writing about the ‘animal question.’ The Anglophone world has picked up on work done by more well-known French philosophers such as Jacques Derrida (“L’animal que donc je suis (à suivre)”) and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (“Devenir animal”) while less attention has been paid to the equally original yet less often translated work of philosophers such as Florence Burgat, Vinciane Despret, Elizabeth de Fontenay, and Dominique Lestel to name a few. What seems particularly interesting about this work is the emphasis on developing a framework for thinking about animals that does not use the discourse of animal rights (Singer) or animal ethics (Regan). Moreover, there seems to be careful attention paid to the need for thinking about animals in a larger continuum that includes the living world more generally and/or the world of newly created artificial beings (biotechnology, cloned animals, etc.). In order to make this work more accessible, I am currently co-editing with Dr. Louisa Mckenzie a volume of translated articles from thinkers in France and North-America, tentatively titled French Thinking about Animals.

3) The state of interdisciplinary studies and academia today – Having done a double major in French literature and mathematics, I am well aware of the institutional and intellectual difficulties in bridging the ‘two cultures’ (C.P. Snow). At the same time, I am convinced that finding ways to cultivate ‘le tiers instruit’ (Serres), or students versed in both the sciences and the arts, is crucial to the university mandate of producing critical thinkers who are capable of speaking more than one disciplinary language and who are mindful of the ways in which research and results are embedded in specific methodologies. Some of the best students with whom I have had the pleasure of sharing ideas have been in Arts & Science programs. Yet one can certainly raise the question: am I truly interdisciplinary? While I enjoy reading books that popularize  complex scientific theories and have taught a course in literature and science in the French novel, I do not do research, nor do I publish in the area of mathematics. Moreover, my work on environment and literature does not mean that I do any empirical work on the state of ecosystems or disappearing species. If I am aware of disciplinary differences, does this make me interdisciplinary? I’m sure some would reply ‘no’ but I have come to recognize the value of such awareness in classes where students from different programs (management, law, biology, political science, philosophy, etc.) to discuss environmental issues. Knowledge of disciplinary differences goes a long way when trying to converse in other ‘languages’ about such a complex subject.

I’m sure other subjects will come up but for now these will be the three main branches of the blog.