The Nine Dots Prize welcomes responses that draw on a range of perspectives and disciplines. Steven Connor, Nine Dots Prize Board member and Director of the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), talks about the benefits of taking an interdisciplinary approach to tackling the big issues of our times.

Since its inception in 2001, the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) has pledged itself to the opening up of interchange and collaboration between different disciplines and intellectual approaches in Cambridge and beyond. It is part of our inaugural and ongoing commitment in CRASSH that not only is interdisciplinarity often necessary and useful, but that there are no questions that are of any real interest or substance that can be made sense of using the resources of one discipline alone. We think of an academic discipline as concentrating expertise in a particular area – so geographers know about physical space, architects know about buildings, engineers know how things work and are made. In fact, though, every discipline of any dignity or durability secretly suspects that it anyway includes all the others. Everything has to happen somewhere, reasons the geographer. Everything except the immediate and instantaneously-archived present instant belongs to the past and so is the purview of the historian. Many physicists cleave silently to the view attributed traditionally to Democritus, that all that exists are atoms and the spaces between them; everything else is opinion. I once had a long discussion with a biologist which ended with me having glumly to concede that, since languages are naturally-occurring phenomena, and since what is done with them in writing are subsidiary forms of linguistic behaviour, literary criticism ought to be regarded as a sub-branch of biology. Though a little humiliating, this view does offer some unexpected kinds of illumination.

At the same time, it is very striking how disciplines devoted to the study of particular questions set aside certain key issues as either entirely settled or not deserving of serious attention. Indeed, they can sometimes seem to be sustained around such blind spots. To give an example from my own home discipline, it is taken entirely for granted by most readers of literature that you read poems, novels and plays for enjoyment. Because literary critics and historians for the most part read not for enjoyment but for a living, or in search of bracing dramatisations of questions of social justice, the question of what the enjoyment of literary texts might possibly consist of has become progressively more invisible and uninteresting, at least to literary critics, as the discipline of literary criticism has been institutionalised.

I believe that this commitment to the broaching and sustaining of different, sometimes difficult, kinds of encounter between different accents of thought makes CRASSH a natural and enthusiastic partner in the Nine Dots Prize, which similarly regards it as imperative to bring the broadest possible perspectives to bear on the biggest and most intractable questions, and deliberately seeks out questions that do not obviously belong to any one particular intellectual guild or area of expertise.

At the same time, we need to be aware, and wary, of the automatic promotion of interdisciplinarity as conferring virtue in itself. For it is impossible not to notice how hugely institutionalised the idea of interdisciplinarity has become in academic life and among funding bodies. Where you once took a professional risk in being interdisciplinary, it now feels like career suicide for an academic not to be. To say you were opposed to interdisciplinarity nowadays would be like standing up and saying you don’t believe in fairies at the end of Peter Pan. The prodigious degree of convergence – one might almost say conformity – of language, theory, method and perspective – that has established itself globally across the humanities, often in the name of interdisciplinarity, has not been seen since the days of the medieval university (though then the humanities meant anything not having to do with questions of the divine). But what has always produced the greatest discovery and invention of new possibilities for thought is not an aggregating and optimising interdisciplinarity based on the model of corporate merger, but rather the sparks that fly from fissure and friction, or what Michel Foucault calls ‘the outlandish allure of another system of thought, as the limit of our own, in the stark impossibility of thinking that.’

This blog was originally posted on the Nine Dots Prize website on 11 November 2020


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