Blog Post

The Space-Time of Disciplines

What is a discipline? Maybe it is the space-time of slowing down andgoing inward, having a conversation of such specificity and referencethat only others in one's group understand. In the reading I'm doingthis year, it is fascinating to see how often researchers move in andout of disciplines, sometimes addressing a wider audience and then, atothers, being unable to resist the temptation to dally, linger, probe,analyze, scrutinize, challenge, and caress the disciplinary object.


My friend Priscilla and I went on another of our three-mile walks in Duke Forest, on the Al Buehler trail walked by so many. Sometimes people tease us that we're hosting a seminar, not taking a walk, and I suppose it does seem like that. We're so excited to have this precious, uninterrupted time together that we just talk and talk, engaged at the level of high ideas, debate, laughter, friendship mixed with rigorous back-and-forth on any subject you can think of. It's fast moving and usually not "in" our discipline of English, although often it is about narrative, storytelling, myth, theory, poetry, the arts.


On this walk, we ended up talking about Mark Hansen's work on techne, on time and technology, and his observations about media artist Bill Viola who slows down time and makes us pay attention to the what-happens-in-between, those process times in between the idea and the next one, the attention and then the diversion to the next source of attention. Priscilla was interested in the research that shows how people recognize the first moment and then the last--but wipe out the inbetween, the process of moving from one idea to another. It's as if space/time--and sometimes interiority-- never happened. I chriped in with research from psychologist Daniel Gilbert on various studies showing how people compress memories of events to high points, to that which forces attention, and retrospectively (and sometimes in the moment) simply blot out the in-between. We notice the unfamiliar, not the familiar, and often our own mental processes are too familiar for us to notice (a tendency towards introspective laziness that philosophers or those doing meditation are trained to counteract).

Artists, too. Artists and poets often force us to attend to what we normally skip over. They make us pay attention. Bill Viola slows the world down so the in-between commands our attention. In one of his video games, for example, the player operates at about 5 mph, not the usual 65 mph of a first-person shooter. That means you gain points for pausing and noticing the configurations in the bark of a tree or the shape of a flower petal.


In the way that conversations with my brilliant friend do, this one went from thinking about attention to talking about writing styles and we noted how often scholars will follow a Bill Viola-like slowing down when they want to address issues that are central to debates in their field. This slowing down happens sometimes even when it obstructs the flow of the overall argument. It's irresistible, and the author pauses, reflects, theorizes, digs in.


It can be confusing to the reader, this sudden change in rhetorical tempo. That is, one can be reading along through an argument and then suddenly there will be a theoretical digression or, in wet lab scientific articles, an extremely detailed description of methodologies or, in social sciences, sudden breakouts of charts and graphs detailing micro-deviations. It's a kind of OCD moment. Annoying if you don't share the obsession but utterly fascinating if you do. In the same way that Bill Viola makes us attend to tree bark, scholars make us attend to the details of an idea--its configurations, its patterns, its variations in color and texture.


Those details are seldom interesting to the non-disciplinary reader who is interested in the punchline, so to speak. But often the status one has within a discipline depends upon how well one attends to the nuances (including the debates in the field) of that area of attention. Priscilla and I, for example, had both had the experience of revising a piece for a general audience and realizing that the close readings of texts had to go . . . that's the "skip over" unless you are an Englisher for whom close reading of texts is important.


On our walks, Priscilla and I often talk about disciplinary formation and interdisciplinary formation. Both are constantly changing, relative to their own histories, relative to the histories of contiguous disciplines. What we thought about in relation to the Bill Viola example was that perhaps discipline is best defined by those places where a community wants to slow down and pay attention. That is, if there is consensus about what deserves attention, if there is status to being able to attend well to certain features (texts, methodologies, statistical analyses), perhaps that is the real disciplinary center. The space-time attentiveness and the conversation (i.e. debate) about that place of focus, that locus of focus, may constitute a better description of disciplinary investment (and disciplinary affect) than the overt and prescriptive disciplinary subject matter itself.  Discipline is the space-time of our attention:  that's the definition of discipline we came up with on a walk on a beautiful May day.


Readers of this blog know that I often talk about conversations that I've had with my friend Priscilla Wald.  At risk of embarrassing her (if she reads this) and sounding like an infomercial, I do have to recommend her incredible book:  Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. It's a fascinating and important look at how narratives of contagion, from Typhoid Mary to HIV to Ebola, pervade the science and science fiction of disease, but also the public health policy and the treatment of disease. It's urgent reading in a graceful, powerful, and lucid style. Here's the url.

[Photo credit: Thanks to Hans Van Reenen's Photostream on Flickr, of Bill Viola's "Five Angels for the Millenium." Please click on the image for full documentation.]














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