Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Timelines and Borders of the Interdisciplinary

LMagee and I have had occasional conversations this past year on the ways in which the interdisciplinary transmission of ideas takes place. One recurrent theme in these conversations has been the issue of time lag – how concepts and works from outside one’s core discipline or sub-discipline are so often appropriated in the form they occupied decades ago, with little appreciation for how subsequent specialist discussion might have transformed a tradition – whether enabling a tradition to address pivotal early critiques, or causing a tradition to be rejected in spite of its early promise. Another recurrent theme has been the issue of marginality – how texts and concepts can sometimes come to have interdisciplinary resonance, and even – in the minds of non-specialists – come to signify a discipline, when that discipline’s own practitioners might regard those texts or concepts as dubious, marginal, dated, or mundane statements of the obvious.

The fact that a disciplinary discussion “moves on” – that specialists are no longer so taken (or may never have been taken) by specific works as are those of us looking into the discipline from the outside – is not automatically grounds for rejecting an interdisciplinary appropriation. It may in fact be that a work is simply more valuable for the thoughts it sparks outside its home ground, that specialists have become jaded through familiarity, that the influence of a foundational work has come to be so taken for granted that its novelty and importance are no longer recognised within its own field – or that, as Sinthome has suggested, pressures driving toward novelty in academic production have created a cottage critical industry that, for all its volume and detail, takes nothing away from the overarching brilliance of an earlier text.

Being unaware of these broader specialist debates becomes more of a problem for interdisciplinary work, however, when people succumb to the temptation, not only to be inspired by a work from another discipline, but to steal some of the aura of that discipline to add a kind of nonconceptual force to their re-presentation of a borrowed idea. LM and I have recently been discussing some examples of this in relation to social science appropriations of quantum mechanics and set theory in particular, where occasional authors have quite selectively appropriated very specific interpretations of highly contested issues within a complex specialist discussion, and presented these appropriations to nonspecialists as “discoveries” – as established and firm bits of factual knowledge or analytical technique. These kinds of “auratic” interdisciplinary appropriations often strike me as attempts to raise the prestige of a claim by exoticising it, removing it from the everyday experience of intended readers and interlocutors, and effectively placing the claim within a black box of inherited authority, in which position it is shielded from critique…

As someone quite committed to interdisciplinary work, I always find myself a bit frightened by the risk of “auratic” appropriations: I don’t think such appropriations are always intentional, or are consistently recognised for what they are, and I want very much to avoid falling into this practice. This is why I so often emphasise the metaphoric nature of concepts I appropriate from other fields, and try to remain tentative and agnostic about extrapolating the significance of empirical work from distantly-related disciplines, assuming that, as in those more familiar disciplines closer to home, exotic fields will also have their intractable debates, their unaccountable fads, and their creative interpretive frameworks that are massively underdetermined by the evidence… Like any tourist, the interdisciplinary researcher needs to take special care not to overlook potential dangers whose existence would loom large to a disciplinary native… At the same time, interdisciplinary travels are the only way that certain kinds of questions can be answered – often, in fact, the only way that certain kinds of questions can be perceived. Fear of what might go wrong therefore must not undermine our willingness to undertake interdiscilinary work. The question becomes, not whether to conduct interdisciplinary work, but how to do so at a high level.

All of this is a very long prolegomenon to mentioning that I am currently reading Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History – which Russ suggested to me some time back, and which I really ought to have read long ago, given that it is an attempt, like my own work, to reason through the philosophical implications of historical experience within a materialist framework. DeLanda’s materialism is of the expansive form associated with the Annales School – seeking to embed human history within a much broader and subtler field of material life than most other “materialist” approaches. DeLanda draws on a very wide range of scientific and social scientific disciplines – mined particularly, I gather, for their insights into potentials for spontaneous self-organisation and “emergence” – as inspiration for his philosophical work, which attempts to understand the implications of complex and nonlinear trajectories he regards as characteristic of material systems and of human history.

I’m too early in the text to comment meaningfully, but am fascinated by the ambition and scope of the work – and am also enjoying reading an author who attempts to dig deeply into the relationships between philosophical concepts and historical experience. I am also particularly interested in how the work navigates the interdisciplinary minefield I mentioned above – how it might draw inspiration, while avoiding the risk of aura, when the disciplinary appropriations are themselves so multi-faceted, and the object of analysis so complex and vast. I’m eager to dig into the details… If others who have read DeLanda would like to comment, I’d also be interested in learning what different folks have taken away from DeLanda’s work.

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