Problems with interdisciplinarity in the humanities

At a recent workshop on interdisciplinarity for researchers from the Coimbra Group in Trinity College Dublin, at the Long Room Hub, there were some interesting presentations (especially by Britta Padberg of ZiF and Christoph Horn of Bonn University) and conversations had about the challenges and opportunities within this area. It got me thinking about some of the theoretical and structural peculiarities of the humanities that makes the discussion of interdisciplinarity in the arts and humanities different from the STEM, and perhaps also the social sciences. As always, there are counter-examples and caveats, but here are some thoughts under the follow headings.

(i) The place of common theoretical structures in STEM and AHSS interdisciplinarity

(ii) Disciplinary and professional drivers and barriers to interdisciplinarity

(iii) Intra- and interdisciplinarity – or precision versus purity Continue reading

What is causing the marketization of higher education?

The marketization of the university is held to be a product of neoliberalism, of the need to put everything in terms of the bottom dollar. This last word is where I wish to depart from the usual interpretation. Marketization is an American phenomenon, and yet there is too little focus on its specifically national context. Rather than the national, the international in terms of globalization is held to be at the root of what is happening in higher education in the US, and now increasingly in the UK* and, Western Europe. But are we not jumping the gun?

I wish to emphasize here that we are always already dealing with a complex information exchange. It is a question of a knowledge ecology rather than a knowledge economy. It is not that a law is passed, or a budget is approved, an administrative decision is taken, a fiat is imposed. This is a static view of matter whereby X says Y, and Z happens. Rather, there is an iterative process of consultation, discussion, evaluation, balancing. The decisions taken regarding higher education do not exist in isolation.

In this policy ecology, education matters are impossible to isolate from other government policy priorities, but disciplinary blinkers may cause us to do something along these lines. What we see happening in the US is a trend, not a guaranteed path. It’s contingent on a whole host of interrelating issues and processes, rather than being the necessary outcome of some undeniable “reality”. Continue reading

Quote: why consensus? Implications for research and knowledge

And why should there be consensus? Must consensus per se be the overriding goal? It is the price of progress that there never can be complete consensus. All creative advances are essentially a departure from agreed-upon ways of looking at things, and to overemphasize the agreed-upon is to legitimatize the further the hostility to that creativity upon which we all ultimately depend.

William H. Whyte, The Organization Man, p. 59.

The Organization ManWhyte makes continued reference to there being a stark difference in the requirements imposed on the member of an organization qua member-of-an-organization (that is, a constituent of a group) and what might in fact best suit this individual as an individual. It brings home to me how fecund the hermeneutic interpretation of how meaning is created can be in this context.

Paul Ricoeur made it a central part of his analysis of language that meaning does not come from denotation, from pure description as a one-to-one identity of meaning (univocity, akin to the Hebrew YHWH), nor a vector of signifier to signified (equivocity), but as  through tension, through the torsion and bending of language out of its old form into a new one (i.e., analogy – more on this in an old post, Being, metaphor, and “nothingness”). That is new meaning comes from metaphor, analogy, critique, and other ‘figurative’ forms of language. This is the analysis of meaning within language. We can extend this, however, and make analogy with society and the production of knowledge, information.

What Whyte is discussing here is the notion that consensus can be an obstacle to the discovery of solutions to problems, that consensus effectively means doing what we have always done and hoping that we will end up doing something new. Via this reductio the illogic of such a concept becomes apparent. It draws out the quite formal contradiction at the centre of this mindset. It indicates that any form of consensus (including the now fashionable consensus of so-called ‘disruption’) stifles the discovery of alternatives, or possibilities.

Making matters concrete for a moment, we find the kernel of an argument to be made for ‘blue-sky’ or pure research. Parsing current discussions of research according to the distinctions made above, consensus research is that research which is directed, which must have measureable impact. Consensus research must take place within a research framework, a research project, a research group, a research pillar, a research funding call, etc. The alternative (I don’t give it a distinctive name as that goes against its elusive, un-pin-down-able characteristics – better to define it negatively, in opposition) is not beholden to the stifling qualities of consensus, namely bureaucracy, conformity, and fitting oneself into neat boxes a-ready for the ticking. Is this a pure dichotomy, a clean distinction? Of course not. Is directed research to be done away with? Of course not. Is pure, non-consensus research more productive than it’s counterpart? Who can say. What is necessary here (in the spirit of critique, mentioned above) is to note that directed research, consensus attempts at creating knowledge and meaning are not the only game in town.

Quote: Style and the linguistic bases of Roman rhetorical devices

I decided recently to brush up on my Latin (it has been a damp week in Ireland so far), and so dug out old grammars, dictionaries, and anthologies. I turned to Cicero (kik-er-oh I keep reminding myself), as the flavour of some of the orations seemed appropriate to the times, and thus perhaps I was more likely to drive on with my revision. O tempora! O mores! I have a copy of J.B. Greenough and G.L. Kittredge’s Select Orations of Cicero (New York, 1896) which I picked up for a song somewhere, sometime (but html version here, and pdf here). Reading the introduction, I came across the following passage:

Of course he is not always at his best, but it is never safe to criticise his compositions without a careful study of the practical necessities of the occasion.

Thus Cicero’s style is often criticised as redundant and tautological, a criticism which must proceed either from ignorance or inattention. One of the great arts of the public speaker is to keep before his audience a few points in such a way that they cannot be lost sight of. To accomplish this, these points must be repeated as many times as possible, but with such art that the fact of repetition shall not be noticed. Hence the same thing must often be said again and again, or else dwelt upon with a profusion of rhetoric, in order to allow time for the idea to gain a lodgement. […] Literary tautology is in fact a special oratorical virtue. A spoken word you hear but once unless it is repeated, and there are things which have to be heard many times before they can have their effect.

Again, apart from “repetitional” tautology, it must be remembered that the Latin language was in a sense a rude tongue, lacking in nice distinctions. Such distinctions must be wrought out by a long-continued effort to express delicate shades of thought. Hence it often becomes necessary in Latin to point the exact signification of a word or phrase capable of several meanings, either by contrasting it with its opposite, or else by adding another word which has an equally general meaning, but which, like a stereoscopic view, gives the other side of the same idea, and so rounds out and limits the vagueness of the first. Thus the two together often produce as refined distinctions as any language which has a larger and more precise vocabulary. [‘Cicero as an Orator’, p. xliv]

This strikes me as a singularly incisive, hermeneutic overview of the myriad ways which a language can function. On the first level, it gives an explanation for those rhetorical devices I have long read about, and wondered how something so artificial, so formal, could be accepted by a listener. Surely the auditor would hear the first part of this figure of speech, and get bored. “Yes, I know what you mean, you don’t need to say it twice or thrice.” This passage shows up the condescending (not to say anachronistic) nature of my long-held assumptions.

Beyond this, it nicely distinguishes between formal and informal logics, the appropriateness of both, and the reasons for one being used rather than the other. We delve a little deeper into language, beyond the stage of it being spoken, towards the theatre machinery of the entire language’s vocabulary and grammar, and beyond this into the box office and foyer to the point of content with the outside world. We see language as it works, where it comes from, and what is beyond its remit or outside its control. Might be worth while drawing attention to the related figures hendiatris and hendiadys here, as the editors do further on.

Graham Harman on objects & the neo-liberal table: a response to Terence Blake

I am responding here to some of the comments made by Terence Blake to the second part of my review of Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object here. In my post, I bemoaned the fact that Harman very often talks about how his philosophy can cope with actual objects, but to my mind he more often than not simply dances around objects in the abstract. I did not consider there to be any real attempts to grapple with the theoretical difficulties that attend all philosophies that feature objects as real entities. Terence drew my attention to a post of his over at Agent Swarm, ‘Harman’s Third Table’ which features a clear and thorough review of such an attempt by Harman, namely his short brochure The Third Table.  These are some observations.

First, I would note that Harman would dismiss anything I might say here as misguided (since that is what hermeneutics is to him, as is anything which doesn’t simply assent to his position).  The inability to recognise that he is not providing us with a model of considering the object, but rather a vast and damaging oversimplification of what any such consideration may be, is at the root of the impasse here. Blake refers to Harman’s ‘scientist’, and this is precisely what is at issue. Harman believes he is being scientific, or rigorous, or objective in attempting to provide us with a model of how we consider/regard/theorise/think an object. Would that this were so. It may be, however, that Harman has misunderstood what a model is and what it can do. Models deal with data, and sometimes information. They cannot deal with knowledge and meaning, which is precisely what is at stake in the philosophy of an object. A model can tell us how many objects there are, sometimes what their interactions with each other are. The properties of these objects require a rather difference conceptual apparatus, depending on the question we are asking. These questions may indeed pertain to different scales, with these scales being occasionally incommensurate. This brings me to my first point.

Harman states that a scientist reduces down to tiny particles invisible to the eye. Really? All scientists have this model of downward reduction? Of course not, and the notion that an emergent wholeness is the preserve of OOO, or even its achievement, is nonsense. Emergence is found in various other directions, urban studies, ecology, and I would argue the hermeneutic notion of context. Harman is attempting to assert a monopoly on an idea here. This approach makes me think of a patent troll, asserting some spurious right to an ‘intellectual property’ which they have arrogated for themselves through underhanded means. The most important point about emergences is latched on to by Harman. It is cheering that he sees this much at least. What is troubling is the conclusion which he draws from it. This point is the notion I alluded to above of potentially incommensurate scales, questions which pertain to different levels. You do not use the idea of quantum indeterminacy to any level above the quantum. It does not apply. We may find similarities in our approaches to the questions we may ask at different levels, and that is fine. Just as history doesn’t repeat itself, but rather rhymes (Twain), we might suggest something similar of theory.

This is not enough for Harman. The notion that different questions are asked at different levels implies a radical incommensurability. A pragmatic, or hermeneutic incommensurability is insufficient for him. It isn’t sexy in the same way that a totalising break is. I perceive echoes with Derrida’s hypostatization of the gap. It is Alfred North Whitehead’s ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ again. This is why Terence Blake rightly concludes that it is a naive negative theology; naive because there are examples of the apophatic approach which are considerably more nuanced and sophisticated than this. The question becomes now, then, why is it so naive? Harman has a wonderful mind, so he isn’t simply misguided surely. The third table with which Harman presents us is fascinating to me, because I cannot help but consider this attempt at describing an OOO table to us in political terms.

If we think of the approach which is suggested to us by Harman, that of the notion that verification is not open to us. The real object, or the object as real “cannot be known, only loved”. We must accept, and revel in the given. This is the philosophical equivalent of “don’t rock the boat”. The object knows itself, and this knowledge is concealed from you. You cannot know, so don’t try. Accept your limitations, and realise that there is something bigger and greater than you. The phenomenological ur-notion of intentionality is almost totally effaced, and consequently so are agency and the subject. The only reality is to be attributed to that which cannot express itself, and we are wraiths in this world. All of our mental powers come to nothing, and our manipulative prowess is a fantasy. I am going overboard, because this OOO mindset deserves a reductio. What we see is that there are political implications for this metaphysics, and these politics are decidedly neo-liberal, given that the notion of any attempt at using our minds to deal with objects and events is rubbished from the outset. The object oriented is a laissez-faire ontology. Whatever your own political sympathies, this is something that I believe is worth considering. Where is this ontology leading us? 

Rhetoric, hermeneutics and the philosophy of technology

My approach to the philosophy of technology has been via the route of hermeneutics from day one. Within mainstream philosophy, there are established figures such as Heidegger who feature in all of the summaries of the philosophy of technology, yet they does not do much for me. There are the critical theorists such as Marcuse who are also often appealed to, and likewise I am unenthused. I feel I should set out how and why hermeneutics, and Hans Georg Gadamer specifically, set the tone for my engagement with the philosophy of technology and its sub-disciplines. The reason I choose Gadamerian hermeneutics is that it is a philosophy which puts rhetoric in a central position, and technology is a deeply rhetorical field.

Technology is most often described as being connected with science, in that it is technology which exemplifies a scientific principle brought to bear on the world. It is science made practical, science made to serve our human ends. Were this the full story, in all its neutral glory, then turning to Heidegger or Marcuse would not seem quite so problematic to me. If technology was only ever merely “application” then it would invite such interpretation as Heidegger and Marcuse seem to offer. But it is not. There are two ways to demonstrate this, Continue reading

Digital preservation as deletion and Paul Ricoeur

In a discussion about the importance of digital humanities at the “Realising the Opportunities of Digital Humanities” Conference today in Croke Park, William Kilbride of the Digital Preservation Coalition raised an interesting point that we have various ways of conceiving preservation.

According to this way of thinking, it is not the case that we fetishise preservation, as we don’t need some form of totalising memory, digital or otherwise. To attempt this would be tantamount to the shut-ins of urban mythology who hoard every newspaper from every day of their lives. That would be archivist qua bag lady. No, the fundamental, pragmatic point Kilbride appears to be making is that we simply don’t have the resources available to collect and maintain such an all-encompassing system of repositories and archives. Selection is necessary, editing is necessary, and thus knowing what not to hold on to is necessary. As such, then, preservation is ineluctably tied up with deletion. Continue reading