In an earlier post, I discussed the evacuation of meaning from the term “interdisciplinarity” and some forms that I consider to be more authentic attempts to get beyond limits of traditional–and nontraditional–disciplines.
One question often left unasked is why universities are now so interested in fostering certain kinds of interdisciplinarity. When I was first learning about university disciplines in the late 80s and early 90s, it was still very much in the “Theory” moment (to use Frederic Jameson’s term) and there was a lot of writing that assumed that remaining in one’s disciplinary space was fundamentally conservative (hence the proliferation of metaphors like “disciplinary silo”) and interdisciplinarity was fundamentally radical in some way.
Today, the world looks very different to me. Just as many interdisciplinary initiatives come from university administrations as they do from actual researchers working together. Sometimes, it’s a matter of efficiency: create a PhD in cultural studies and you can potentially avoid having PhDs in each of the humanities. Or if you’re in Ontario, create an interdisciplinary PhD and get more money flowing into your university while not expending additional resources (though of course your faculty will have to work harder). Or if you get people in business, liberal arts, and science working together you can bring in more grant money. None of these goals is inherently bad or regressive. I am not arguing that interdisciplinarity has been “sold out” in any of these cases. But it is worth noting that in each of them, the justification is institutional rather than intellectual and the ideas come after the fact: “here’s a group of people who should work together on a project: now make up a project.” Sometimes great good can come out of these kinds of initiatives. For instance, I have always thought every university needs an interdisciplinary humanities center, just so people can have occasions to come together and talk. But for every one of those, there are plenty of other plans hatched by administrators or grant agencies that have more to do with someone moving around institutional chess pieces or trying to get “more value for their money” as opposed to a genuine intellectual project. Maybe this was always the case and I just was unaware of the institutional dimensions as a student (or too eager to believe the radical posturing of capital-T-Theorists, which is also a possibility).
No matter how it happened, it has led me to a kind of double consciousness as a scholar. Yes, I believe my work is interdisciplinary (not the least because any field I could reasonably call a “home”–communication studies, cultural studies, science and technology studies–has a weak sense, if any, of itself as a discipline). It aspires to the kinds of interdisciplinary I mentioned in my first post on the subject, but it is always driven by specific intellectual questions (as opposed, for instance, to the need to speak for a field of “sound studies” or whatever). At the same time, I am more suspicious than I would like to be when others laud the interdisciplinarity of their own work or when I hear of a new interdisciplinary initiative. My first question now is always “why?”