The inter-discipline and the Field


Articles calling on academics to ‘be engaged’ appear with metronomic regularity, almost as steadily as we are asked to use less jargon, or ‘be more accessible’. The content is homogeneous but the tone differs, varying from “look guys, I’m trying to save the humanities over here” to “get a real job you punks”. All are grotesque. Not because the people calling for engagement get angry when the ‘engagement’ actually occurs (although this is annoying) but because these articles ignore a pretty basic question:

Why should academics be more ‘engaged’ than a server at taco bell, or an electrician? Are we so important? Am I so special? My mother thinks I am, but I don’t think she should be steering public policy.

I think there are two reasons for this repetitive oversight:

  1. Academic work isn’t considered real work
  2. Labourers aren’t considered real people

With (1) we have real people doing not-real-work, and with (2) we have real work being done by not-real-people. I am not sure who the real people doing real work are. Likely  CEOs, consultants, drug dealers, and other people above my station.

Those asking us to engage request nothing less than that we cease our nonsense and start doing real work, work that matters—like dealing drugs or raiding pension funds. It is a request that we justify ourselves properly. It is also the request that we grow up, admit that academic work is useless, and work towards the common good.

But, what is the justification for our not-real-work? For academics even one-half a generation before me, it was The Field. The Field was a beautiful thing, as this recently discovered dialogue between a Beautiful Soul and an administrative Philistine illustrates:

               Philistine: Why are you studying ancient Ugaritic tax invoices?

               Beautiful Soul: To advance The Field.

               Philistine: Why recreate Diderot’s path home from the brothel?

               BS: The Field of brothelology demands it.

In this golden age, there were an unstable number of Fields (History, Literature, Biology, Phrenology, and so on) which were both spaces to be cultivated, and forces to be advanced.

Of course, no one has ever known where one field ends and the next begins, and most things can’t be understood if you aren’t willing to wander across multiple territories. But The Field allowed you to justify your work without appealing either to making money or improving society. It was a fantasy, but one that gave legitimacy to many wonderful things. Now it is gone, and money and the greater good are the only legitimacy we have left.

Clearly unable to make money, humanities professors are thus supposed to improve society, to be useful, and advance social justice. Which we should. Hell, we should also advance economic justice. But–and this is the trick–everyone should do this. I have about as many opportunities to advance the cause of justice with my work on Mendelssohn as an electrician does when she considers who to apprentice next. That is: some, but not much.

In any case, the Fields are gone, and we are interdisciplinary now. Older curmudgeons ask how we can be inter-disciplinary if we have never studied in a Field. For some reason, this doesn’t bother me. I just read and write, and I assume that’s what people like me have always done. But I do not like enforced inter-disciplinarity; every funding application I write stresses how inter-disciplinary I am. And this is true. But I dislike knowing that these words must appear in either the first or second paragraph, or I will never be funded. Because my work is housed in and protected by actual departments, and mandatory inter-disciplinarity weakens them. And my work is still half-justified by the fact that it might help people in a understand things, and better their work in their little field, or gardens. But the Fields are all gone, gardening is for the rich, and I am running out of justifications.

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