Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities - Irit Rogoff, Interdisciplinarity, and "Inhabitation."

This year, I have the great fortune to be a part of an interdisciplinary scholarly community on my campus called the IPRH. It's a humanities center that brings together 16 fellows to workshop each other's chapters-in-progress. Every other week, I catch a glimpse of some interesting scholarship I might otherwise miss on such a large campus. But perhaps the aspect I have found the most engaging is that this community allows me access to something that I usually cannot see: how other scholars (at different places in their careers, in different departments) actually produce work, how they dive into their own projects, how they write or think through research problems, how they ask questions, when they decide to change course or set ideas aside. In my experience as an academic, we spend so much time toiling to finish things; but there are so few places where we can really appreciate unfinished products. It's revitalizing.

Last week, the IPRH brought in Irit Rogoff from the Visual Cultures Department of Goldsmiths University of London. She presented a lecture on her current work, and then spent an epic five hours with the fellows, discussing everything from her philosophy against methodology, to how the British academy fosters trans-/cross-/inter-disciplinary* work differently than the US system, to the stakes of developing new vocabularies to produce new work. (How can you thank a visiting scholar for such dedication!?) I originally found Irit's work really challenging from an on-the-ground, in-an-institution perspective. I love interdisciplinarity: I love that for several hours each week, I set aside my dissertation to work with open source OCR software, training it to read 18th-century literature. I love learning to solder, and learning new computer languages. I love having the students in my American Literature Survey courses push their understanding of "American Literature" by reading science writing, creating art or science projects, and so forth. But inasmuch as I work across disciplines, it often feels that true post-disciplinarity is impossible in any institution. And, further, that it's only dubiously desirable: starting with some coherent set of ideas and methods can be really useful, even if pushing on those standards is exciting and productive. But in the end, I really found much of Irit's work convincing and provocative. I think that one of the most important aspects of working in an university is that it can foster new communities that facilitate new types of work, and I admire her work in establishing the Visual Cultures Department. Maybe one day, I'll start an interdisciplinary center of my own; she suggested "Energy Studies." I would certainly love such an undertaking.

One of Irit's central premises that really struck me was the idea of "inhabitation." In Science and Technology Studies, it's common to question how human assumptions and behaviors influence the production of scientific knowledge and technological artifacts. But we aren't always as rigorous about questioning our own "inhabitations": how we, as interdisciplinary scholars, don't actually "cross" boundaries, but inhabit different boundaries or perspectives simultaneously. I'm still not sure how this idea will play out in my own work, but it's something I'm thinking about. I suppose one thing I took away from this experience is something that I already believed but hadn't quite articulated: it's important to inhabit multiple communities at once. I think I am a better PhD Candidate in literature for being a part of IPRH, the Program for Science, Technology, Information, and Medicine, and now HASTAC. I also think it's important to inhabit some places outside of the university. At the very least, it's always challenging and often fun.

 

*Note: Irit would probably hate that I used any of these words.