Interdisciplinarity inside and outside the university

Monday, 27th February 2017

From Feb. 27, 2017

The Accidental Elitist

This is a cut above the usual articles I see on the question of academic jargon and the public. From an academic point of view, thinking with the public is a lot like interdisciplinary work. And it is “thinking with”, not “thinking about”. Just as we are all more comfortable within our disciplines, and it is the rare few who can really do interdisciplinarity well, so too we are comfortable within academic convention, and it is a rare few who can think with those outside the academy.

We’ve seen the same kinds of issues within African philosophy and African thought in general. For decades the academy thought about Africa. It was an object of scrutiny and investigation. And no matter how careful the scholarship was, it always was limited (to say the least). And racist, and objectifying, and all the rest. The move that had to be made was to think with Africans, and more than that, re-orient our thought so that Africans set the agenda. Are we there yet? No. Are we on the way? I think so.

Method in the academy has often been about controlling an object of study, holding it still (either literally or conceptually) so that we could say things about it. But reality doesn’t stay still, and more than that, we are all implicated in reality. As we think about it, it changes.

This is, for me, why interdisciplinarity still matters. It is very hard work to do it well, because it is more than just applying a method from a discipline to a new object, while other disciplines do the same. It is about asking a new question, and subordinating our hard-won methods to the questions we now ask.

What does this have to do with the public? There are questions being asked by non-academics. Recent political developments are, basically, statements of the urgency of those questions. But are they well understood or articulated? I don’t think so. Not yet. We keep hearing that we need to listen to the Trump voter, to hear what they are asking for. But what does that mean? I don’t think that what is being said is being said clearly, at least not at this point. And, because it is not clear, it leads to answers that might be emotionally satisfying, but are not solutions to anything. Are immigration restrictions really solutions to anything? No. Directing funding to the military instead of everything else? No. Even allowing the market to govern all exchanges and interactions, even at a state level? No. These are superficial answers to poorly asked questions. The right-wing media has capitalized on emotion to push for those easy, cheap answers.

I think we need to develop a new kind of interdisciplinarity, one which looks outside the academy. That’s what I see this article as advocating (without saying as much). We need to find a way to ask the questions that are really being asked by those who are so disaffected.

And, at the same time, ask the questions that others, equally marginalized, are asking as well, about police violence, subjugation of women, and so forth. The political left has found ways to connect with some publics, and connect theory with life, but has not found ways to connect with other publics. And the volume of the political discourse at this point in history has risen to the level that many have stopped trying. Academics are exhausted, they are afraid, they are embattled and angry. It is far easier to talk to friendly voices than the others.

But I think the goal hasn’t changed. Dealing with the public isn’t about applying our thought to their world (and I think the article makes this point well). It is about “thinking with”, not “thinking about”.

Today, there are African anthropologists, by which I mean anthropologists who are African and who study places in Africa. There are African philosophers, and African economists, and African historians. These are the people who can define the questions and concepts that are operative in their places. They have access to the ways in which those questions and concepts are scaffolded, that is, the ways that we develop institutions and practices and patterns around those questions and concepts. Instead of coming in with a universal theory, and then seeing how it applies to Africa (invariably, it just does violence to Africa), these thinkers are the ones who must lead all of us in thinking about Africa. It doesn’t mean that others can’t be involved, but the place of thought matters.

This is what I’d like to see in our current political crisis, as it pertains to academics – a new interdisciplinary relationship outside the academy. There are those already in academia who are rooted in the space of frustration and anger out of which Trump support emerged. This is not a call to “understand” more (I wrote in an earlier post that the understanding has to go both ways, something which has hardly happened at all yet), much less a call for a better “explanation” of why people voted in the way they did. It is not thinking about, but thinking with that I want. It is a call to see whether there are those willing to at least try to ask new questions. I know this is hard. It is always hard. But the difficulty might not only be the resistance of those who are rooted in these places. It might also be the resistance that academics have in treating their own methodological commitments as contingent and malleable. It might be the discomfort we feel as highly trained people to the the uncertainties and contingencies of any interdisciplinary space.

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