Blog Post

Disciplinary Shame


I've been thinking more about disciplines after posting a few days agoon "tricking oneself out of disciplinary biases"( Now I'm thinking about disciplinaryshame and fudging. Is that one of the most important (unspoken) rulesa discipline has to teach? Where to blur the lines?


Of course we go into a discipline for some deep affective reason. We love reading books so we become an English major and soon we're on the way to a Ph.D. We love seeing art, going to museums. Art History! Live music, theater: Music and Performance Studies. The elegance of working through complex equations, the perfect symmetries of numbers: mathematics. Making things work: engineering. The contradictions of human behavior and the joy (I'm into this lately) of concocting experiments that show people's unarticulated biases: cognitive psychology. Healing: nursing. On and on and on. Of course, often in the discipline itself, as a full professional, one finds oneself not getting much of a fix of that thing you thought would be your life. But you get more of it than you would probably if you hadn't chosen this walk of life. (I'm pausing over that idiom "walk of life": I like it.)


Once you are working extensively in a discipline, you begin to discover not only its affective joys but also its sources of disciplinary shame. Sometimes these are hangovers from (which is to say reactions to) prejudices or methods or now-disputed assumptions of the previous generation. In literary studies, we're still reacting in so many ways to New Criticism's credo that you study the text, not context, but close reading of a text that is about aesthetics and its various substructures. Much of literary theory post New Criticism has had an implicit reinsertion of The Political. And much of the critique of the first generation of Marxist literary theory is that it was too universalist, without enough attention to cultural specifities ( of the kind that drive postcolonial theory), histories, and political categories of race, class, gender, and sexuality.


That is so potent a part of our profession that you can count on at least one reviewer, either while the book is in manuscript form or after it is published, to critique any book for not having enough attention to those categories. The result is that many brilliant books on race will include some pretty sloppy overgeneralizations on class, gender, and sexuality; or brilliant books on gender will hastily add some asides about race, class, and sexuality. It's not that one can't do all of those while still focusing on a specific topic. It's that each of those categories has its own histories, its own theories, and its own disciplinary formations in reaction to past disciplinary formations. Its own sources, in other words, of unacknowledged disciplinary shame. So an argument that is theoretically informed on, say, immigration's impact on Black-white racial realignments in the post-World War II South is already complex. To keep that rolling and to theorize concurrent (or causal or unrelated or implicated) gender, class, and sexuality realignments is possible, but mind-boggling in the required amount of historical, sociological, and theoretical dexterity to keep all those balls in the air at once. Likely one or two will be dropped. So, instead of trying to keep all aloft with the same degree of precision, authors will often work one and fudge the other lines of argument. Paying lip service, it's called.


I'm guessing that most of us could go through our past books and point out (not that most of us would want to) those places where we're paying eloquent lip service, which is to say fudging. That is, there's a theory, there's a history, there's an argument and it doesn't quite cover all the categories and we fudge that with a different kind of hedgy language or a different level of grand polemic. It's very Playing in the Dark---Toni Morrison's brilliant book on race in literature, where she makes the astute observation that the page before a Black character is about to enter the scene in a white-authored text that is primarily about white people often there's a sizzle on the page, some unarticulated but overdetermined static. If you just look at the page itself, you think, "What's going on here? Why did the tone change? Why did the adjectives suddenly proliferate in this way?" And then you turn the page and in walks an African American character . . . as if the author was nervous about the entry ( maybe even self-conscious that he wouldn't do it exactly right, or worried that you won't like it) was preparing you for it by this overdetermined and hyperbolic break in the text.


It's a brilliant observation and it occurs outside literature too. It often occurs when we are addressing disciplinary shame--a lacunae or an absence--with an overgeneralization designed to cover over that absence. Disciplinary fudging to cover disciplinary shame, the shame of being all-too-aware that one is not fully addressing all of the categories that one's field is concerned to address.


My friend P tells me that, in genetics, one major locus of disciplinary shame is race. And it comes not in arguments over conclusions but often in criticism of the data-collection methods. If you don't have a coherent and consistent definition of "race" (and no one does), how can you collect "racial data" and then scientifically argue from that data to some conclusion about racialized genomics? The sample itself, the data itself, is already corrupt (as wet bench scientists say) because there is no control for (so called) mixed race subjects who, of course, carry a variety of "racial" markers in their genes. A lot of static, in the Playing in the Dark sense, has to happen when geneticists make race-based genetic claims based on data collected from subjects whose genetic strain is multi-raced. Fudging, pushback, intolerance, anger, fury: all those covers for disciplinary shame.


In the fields I'm reading in now, evolution seems to be the background noise, and especially the evolutionary evolution (so to speak) from E. O. Wilson's sociobiology from the 1970s to a somewhat more circumspect and modified current variation on evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology. While many now claim not to buy the sociobiological reductionism of Wilson's evolutionary explanations for "human nature," it is rare to read a work of cognitive science, cognitive psychology, animal behaviorism, biology, or virtually any of the human-based social sciences without encountering some nod towards (it's often in the last chapter) evolution and some grand and vague and general evolutionary explanation of "how man developed his prefrontal cortex" or "why inattentional blindness is an evolutionary adaptation to biodiversity" or something else gestural, grand, and sizzling (in Morrison's sense). Now, Wilson himself was trained as an entymologist. He specialized in ants, and extrapolated from ant behavior to sociobiology, "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior." By which he meant all human social behavior. That's a leap. There's a lot of room, there, for an empirical scientist to feel a bit queazy about scientific method in that progress from ants to a grand theory that accounts for "all human social behavior." There's a bit of logical wiggle room, I'd say.


But then there's a world of fundamentalists out there saying Darwinian evolutionary theory is Satanic or just plain false. Some insist the world is 4000 years old because they believe the Bible says so. So there's not only disciplinary shame but external pressure to defend evolution as a theory or, as my biologist friends say, as a "historical fact." (The analogy in literary studies is the attack from the Right Wing on anyone in the humanities who studies race, class, gender, or sexuality as being "politically correct" or interested in "identity politics" and therefore "reductionist.") It's hard to do your disciplinary work, do your experiments, make conclusions, and make your particular carefully-honed and hedged nod toward evolutionary thinking, no matter what your stand on Wilsonian sociobiology.


I've been reading enough in these other disciplines to feel the static on the page before the evolutionary argument enters the scene, the drumroll, please, before the move from a very carefully controlled experiment, clever in its design and powerful in its implications, perhaps about face recognition in two month old infants, to some grand theory of the brain differentiation of the frontal cortex in humans as a species (as opposed to other primates) that had to have happened in the early Pleistocene. You need a drumroll before you make a 1.5 million year leap based on one experiment measuring infantile saccadic eye movements.


Here's the big disciplinary question: if you read enough in other disciplines, especially if you are lucky enough to find those disciplinary scholars (cognitive neuroscientist Dan Levitin is great at this) who like to situate their work within their discipline and who give outsiders clues to what those important disciplinary debates and parameters are, you can detect the shame sites. But, if you are writing in other disciplines, do you know enough about what that shame feels like to know how and where and when to fudge? Morrison's point is that the white reader and writer share a racial shame so the dissonance on the page before the African American character enters is a kind of code language, almost a warning, an Althusserian hailing, like a pirate's treasure map: Here Thar Be Shame.


I'm not sure I know how to do shame in other disciplines precisely because I don't inhabit those disciplines which is to say I don't have to experience that disciplinary shame. I can spot it. But I don't have to worry about covering it up. My discipline isn't going to hold me accountable for what's shameful in yours---and vice versa. Maybe that's the ultimate interdisciplinary (ir)responsibility and freedom: to know the other disciplines' source of shame, but not to have to partake in it because, in the end and after all, it's not your own. You have plenty enough to worry about at home.









Special thanks to "Rubared" for posting this photograph on Flickr. For Rubared's photostream, and full documentation, please click on the image.


No comments