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Keynote Lecture CultureWorks Mount Allison University February 11, 2012

Open Fields? The Future of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities

I am not here to say that the future of the humanities is interdisciplinary study, although I
think it is. I am here rather to argue for a specific kind of interdisciplinary future that
proclaims the vitality and importance of humanities as a philosophy, a set of methods, an
epistemology. I want to map what I believe to be the best route for future success within
interdisciplinary academic research. To do that, I want to begin by discussing the problems
humanities presently face, especially in Britain, but also to differing extents across Europe
and particularly acutely in North America. I shall then discuss the emergence, I should say re-
emergence, of a particular relationship between the humanities and the sciences that is having
an enormous impact on humanities research and discuss why this relationship is problematic.
That will lead me to argue for a particular kind of interdisciplinary research in the humanities
and its importance and potential. In doing all of this, I am conscious that there are a number
of different views, different to my own certainly, and numerous issues that make what I am
going to say much more complex than it will appear in this short lecture. These are issues of
time, funding, institutional pressure of various kinds, publishing practices, and I could go on.
But as I wish to offer a clearly delineated set of principles I shall not be discussing any of
these we might pick them up in our discussion later.


The Humanities face a specific problem of both representation and disciplinary cohesion.
This is a problem that stems from the voracious curiosity and liberality of its various fields. It
may be regarded as a strength, of course, that the Humanities are able to think rigorously
about an enormous variety of different objects, and bring such a range of methodologies and
theoretical positions to bear upon them. Certainly Stanford Universitys Humanities
department believes this. Its introduction to the department, on the screen now, is as follows:

Insight Into Everything. Through exploration of the humanities we learn how to think
creatively and critically, to reason, and to ask questions. Because these skills allow us
to gain new insights into everything from poetry and paintings to business models and
politics, humanistic subjects have been at the heart of a liberal arts education since the
ancient Greeks first used to them to educate their citizens. (Stanford University
Humanities Department Introduction)

In the past few years I have heard lectures or read books from Humanities scholars that I
know personally that deal with all of these things, from Jeff Wallaces work on modernist art
and poetry, Ruth McElroys research on the politics of nation in contemporary television to
Keir Waddingtons work on public health finance and policy. However, such insight into
everything has always been double-edged for the humanities, allowing its detractors to think
of it, and call it, a dilettante or a jack of all trades, or simply uncertain of what it actually is
and does. As Joe Moran has argued in his book on interdisciplinarity, many humanities
subjects, such as English Literature, his example, were seen in the early twentieth century as
being about everything and therefore being rigorously scholarly about nothing. How would
we examine such a subject? Asked Cambridges academics when English Literature was
proposed for the curriculum. It was a considerable weakness, argued late nineteenth and early
twentieth century dons, especially in subjects such as mathematics, that the humanities had
no obvious goals, nor any determinable body of knowledge, no specialism, if you will, that
highlighted how it could do something that no other field could. It was not, therefore, testable
within a university context.

This strength or weakness, depending on your position, of the humanities is not perhaps a
great problem in cultures and societies where all forms of knowledge are valued, whether that
knowledge is the hard science of physics or the very much softer humanist understanding of
the history of art. In such a cultural climate it is perhaps perfect acceptable to say, as the US
National Task Force on Scholarship and the Public Humanities did at the beginning of the
1990s, that the humanities are valuable for their own sake and the nation must support and
sustain scholarship because that enriches the common fund of knowledge.

Today, that statement looks somewhat dated, however much we might still agree with it. It
now looks out of kilter with the modern university where it is no longer possible for
knowledge of any kind to be valuable for its own sake, and it is specifically not advisable for
the humanities to be saying so. Knowledge has become increasingly utilitarian, knowledge
must be made to work, it must earn its keep. David Willets, in a lecture early in 2011 at the
British Academy, made a significant effort to say that he loved the humanities, really, but in
doing so revealed what I believe is the key problem facing the humanities. Willetts began
where the US Task Force had finished, with the intrinsic value of the humanities. Let me
quote from his lecture:

One worry about impact has been that scholarship just becomes a means to something
else. I say again that your disciplines are fundamentally worthwhile in and of
themselves. They are deep sources of human satisfaction, helping us to navigate our
way through the world both as individuals and as a society. But there is a paradox:
as soon as we start trying to explain why they have this value, we focus on worldly
outcomes. ..This public value comes across most clearly when we see how the natural
and medical sciences find themselves needing to draw on insights from arts,
humanities and social sciences.

Willetts continues with examples where scientific research has required the support of
humanities research in order to implement scientific solutions. For Willetts this reveals the
public value of humanities. What it really does, though, is make humanities a handmaiden to
science, while marking out utility as the benchmark for research. And this, I would argue, is
one of the ways in which the two cultures that insidious divide between the humanities and
sciences - has re-emerged in the last eighteen months.


The British government policies on Higher Education and the more widespread focus on the
state of the worlds finances (what we in the humanities will probably, in a few years,
describe as the economic turn) has placed significant pressure on universities to create
new wealth, to deliver high-quality graduates, to conduct research that will aid in solving the
present crises. The solutions in the university sector have appeared to support science and its
methods and practices. Teaching income for science remains while in the humanities it has
been cut, research income for science is partly ring-fenced, for the humanities it is likely to be
further reduced. Students are being encouraged to take up university places in science, while
any similar encouragement for the arts and humanities is entirely absent. All of this has been
delivered along with a more general rhetoric in which science is characterised, in opposition
to the humanities, as relevant, vocational, solution-driven, economically vital, indeed at the
centre of a new knowledge economy. That is, there has emerged once again the very crudest
formulation of the two cultures paradigm. Even the director of the British Academy, Sir
Adam Roberts, has recognised this. In a lecture in June 2010 he challenged what he called the
sterile and outdated notion of a society of two cultures, betraying his own anxiety that this
was once again beginning to dominate disciplinary discussions. His evidence for this being
untrue was a series of examples of interdisciplinary humanities research focussed on
solutions to social problems. And this is where I wish to turn my attention to
interdisciplinarity. The reason Adam Roberts immediately called upon interdisciplinary work
to reject the two cultures is because the rise of the sciences in the last few years is, in part,
due to their extraordinary success in representing their own interdisciplinarity.


Interdisciplinary work in the sciences is both fairly new and very long-standing. But the
representation of what that work is and what it achieves is very much of the present moment.
Many different scientific disciplines now, in their language at least, believe interdisciplinarity
is the best, indeed the only, way towards new knowledge. So we find the US Geological
Survey saying that Single discipline science is no longer sufficient to address the issues our
world faces and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia, announcing their new
agendas for 2010 said Many of todays most critical public health challenges are too
complex to be addressed from the perspective of a single discipline. Similarly, the American
Association for the Advancement of Science held a global conference in 2011 to discuss
issues of interdisciplinary science. In the view of that conference A growing number of
interdisciplinary research institutions and projects are rapidly emerging across public and
private organizations around the world, all seeking to advance scientific knowledge and apply
it to human welfare.

What should be becoming obvious here is how the sciences are now representing
interdisciplinary work as valuable in addressing specific kinds of real-world problems.
Interdisciplinarity is not about the cross-fertilization of knowledge, or the breaking of
boundaries or productive disruptions to static ways of thinking (all of these being traditional
definitions of the value of interdisciplinarity) but rather is about utility. The new
interdisciplinarity, as I would call this, is focussed on finding solutions to existing problems
it is, to use the present jargon, policy-relevant, fit to face the current challenges.

Let me give one brief example. For numerous nations and governments climate change is one
of these current challenges: and fuel consumption a major element within it. How do we
reduce fuel use? That is certainly a policy-relevant question. Sciences new interdisciplinarity
is making progress in one area reducing the fuel consumption of air travel. This requires,
inevitably, an interdisciplinary approach no single discipline can address such a complex
issue. And so a team of British scientists is presently working together. A chemist is
considering ways to make fuel more compact and produce greater energy, a biologist is
working on greener types of fuel not based in carbon derivatives, and an engineer is trying to
make planes with much lighter body parts so that it requires less fuel for journeys. This
interdisciplinary group even, in a tongue in cheek way, call their work blue skies thinking.
However, this type of interdisciplinary collaboration (you might rather call it multi-
disciplinary in fact) has specific characteristics. It has a clear research question, indeed a
single research problem to be addressed. The different disciplines involved do not arrive at
the question from any position of autonomy. The question is posed, and the disciplines are
invited to contribute solely to its answer. Success is determined by the utility of scientific
answers. This works well for the sciences, of course, because scientific method is founded on
homogeneity, on repeatability, on experiments all reaching the same conclusions. This is how
Willliam Whewell defined scientific method in the 1830s, and it has largely remained the
foundation of scientific work since then.


What does this have to do with the humanities? It appears to me that the methods of
discovery and of knowledge-making that the sciences employ are increasingly being imposed
upon the Humanities. The success that the sciences have had with their form of
interdisciplinarity and the impact that this seems to achieve has led to scientific paradigms
becoming a benchmark of interdisciplinarity and impact more broadly. Now the Humanities
is also being charged with delivering solutions to current challenges, with making an impact,
and with being always interdisciplinary. This is particularly acute in the research councils and
the REF. I do not believe that it is unreasonable to ask humanities what impact it has and I
think this is a question it can very impressively answer. But the impact agenda, a different
thing from impact, I would say, and the associated policies of research councils are
problematic. They are asking the humanities to work to principles that originate in the

For example, the AHRCs Connected Communities programme has as its vision the

At the core of the Programme will be research to understand the changing nature of
communities, in their historical and cultural contexts, and the value of communities in
sustaining and enhancing our quality of life. This enhanced understanding will also
inform the development of more effective community based interventions to address
key economic and societal challenges. Engagement with communities at all stages of
the research will be a key feature. The programme will seek to connect research
expertise and data relevant to communities from across the research base in order to
develop a more holistic understanding of community life rather than tackling issues in

The agenda for this programme repeats scientific interdisciplinaritys claims that multiple
disciplines are needed to answer specific challenges. The language and rhetoric of this
vision is shot through with the homogeneity common to the sciences the focus on specific
questions that require an answer, being led into deliberate and active intervention in policy-
relevant debates, the utilitarian data-gathering and focussing of research expertise on
particular problems.
Other commentators on the present position of the humanities, such as can be found in
Jonathan Bates interesting collection of essays on The Public Value of the Humanities
believe that this kind of vision for humanities research, led by RCUK, is primarily economic
in origin. It is easy to think this, in our obsessively economic world, but my view is that this
is only part of the picture. It is, for me, that the truths of science are now accepted as never
before. If the two cultures had receded until recently it is because science had won this
particular science war. Increasingly, it is to science that our society turns for knowledge, and
it is scientific practice and method that are regarded as the primary modes for gaining human
knowledge. The re-emergence of the two cultures has not been to argue for the importance of
scientific knowledge, as Snow was aiming to do when he first gave us this powerful phrase,
but instead to illuminate how scientific knowledge has become simply knowledge and that
we must all follow its lead.


If the Humanities accepts this model of research and knowledge-making the future is bleak.
The work done under the connected communities programme, and others like it, gives us
some sense of this. My view of this work is anecdotal, and I would be happy to be challenged
on my perspective on it. What research programmes like this implement is a mode of work
that tends towards a reduction in research quality. I do not blame any individual researcher
for this but rather the methodologies the projects demand. For in beginning with a specific
problem that requires a solution the different disciplines involved are led inexorably towards
sameness, a homogeneity that offers an answer. Most often such work does not create any
new knowledge at all but instead uses existing knowledge and applies that to certain activities
(interventions, in the language of the AHRC). Here again we can see the influence of the
sciences for this is the humanities being technologized, turned into an applied humanities or
a translational humanities. The activities can be very valuable, but they are not research, they
do not add to the store of human knowledge in any credible way.

But there is no need to accept this model. Interdisciplinarity in the humanities is not built
around homogeneity, repeatability or focussed application. As Jonathan Bate says in his
introduction to The Public Value of the Humanities, the very nature of the humanities is to
address the messy, debatable and unquantifiable but essentially human dimensions of life.
Interdisciplinary humanities research is the essence of this messiness, complexity, this
heterogeneity. For many scholars it is this that defines humanities research. Steven Knapp, for
example, at a conference on the future of the humanities, noted that their particularity is
what most deeply and importantly separates the objects and events studied by the humanities
from the phenomena studied by the natural and even the social sciences.

It was the humanist philosopher Kierkegaard who articulated this notion of the humanities as
different and unique in his philosophy of exceptionality. And it is the exceptional, the
individual and unique instance, that humanities scholarship can so ably analyse, most
especially when different humanities disciplines are brought to bear in such analyses. It is
this, in my view, that the future of interdisciplinary work in the humanities should be attesting
We must not be drawn to the false research principles that are presently being touted by
research councils and government. We need to resist being drawn into sciences territory. But
this does not mean withdrawing from being forceful about the impact of interdisciplinary
humanities. The impact agenda might appear too limiting now, and certainly it is the common
view that it has not been kind to the humanities. This is, in my view, patently untrue. Impact
should be welcomed by the humanities, and in particular by interdisciplinary humanities
scholarship. Because it allows the humanities to show that by its very nature it is interested in
and influential upon a wide range of human activity. In particular interdisciplinary study can
achieve this because it is able to show that heterogenous views do not mean a failure to find
answers but rather reflects the complex diversity of human knowledge.

Interdisciplinary study should be at the forefront of studies in the Humanities.

Interdisciplinary research illuminate that it is the Humanities that are best equipped to deal
with an ever-changing, diverse and complex world. This is because the philosophical
foundation of the Humanities is in critique and interpretation, and the acceptance that critique
and interpretation might vary when different disciplinary perspectives are employed. This
form of knowledge-making rivalry in the Humanities is its greatest strength, and it is under
pressure from the British governments crude notions of competition. As the Cambridge
historian Simon Szreter argued last year, competition is a false god of university relationships
which should be replaced by the term rivalry, which more accurately reflects the supportive
critical oppositions between disciplines.

But the dialogues that interdisciplinary study in the humanities can foster should not be
insular that is, interdisciplinary research should be seeking connections to disciplines
outside the Humanities, too. In particular such work should be making connections with the
sciences, if for no other reason than to show the falsity of the re-emerging two cultures
paradigm. Additionally, however, humanities has a lot to teach the sciences in particular it is
able to show it that there is more than one kind of truth to be discovered and that it is
important, necessary even, to have more than one truth available to us.

Further, interdisciplinary research should be working in the world, revealing its own tableaux
vivant. I draw this phrase, one I have used elsewhere in my work, from eighteenth century
illustration, which employed the model of the tableaux vivant, or portrait in life, to show
objects in use in real world settings. It was common in arts and crafts publications, and in
works on science and technology. It is this idea of the tableaux vivant that interdisciplinary
humanities should also be considering showing its research at work in the real world.

Derrida has argued, in a lecture given in the US in 1999, that this kind of work is where
resistance and also responsibility lies for the humanities. I would like to quote Derrida in full
on this, beginning with his comment that the humanities are indicators of the limits of a
university, markers of its boundaries, and therefore coeaval with the university itself:
One thus touches on the very limit, between the inside and the outside, notably the
border of the university itself, and within it, of the Humanities. One thinks in the
Humanities the irreducibility of their outside and of their future. One thinks in the
Humanities that one cannot and must not let oneself be enclosed within the inside of
the Humanities. But for this thinking to be strong and consistent requires the
Humanities. To think this is not an academic, speculative, or theoretical operation; it
is not a neutral utopia. No more than saying it is a simple enunciation. It is on this
always divisible limit, it is at this limit that what arrives arrives. It is this limit that is
affected by the arriving and that changes. This limit of the impossible, the perhaps,
and the if, this is the place where the university is exposed to reality, to the forces
from without (be they cultural, ideological, political, economic, or other). It is there
that the university is in the world that it is attempting to think. On this border it must
therefore negotiate and organize its resistance. And take its responsibilities. Jacques
Derrida: The Future of the Profession, or the university without condition (lecture
given at SUNY Albany in October 1999)

For Derrida, then, it is when Humanities encounters the world beyond its limits, when it
exposes itself to the real, that is where its resistance begins, and where it should be working if
it is to be responsible and that responsibility is, I think, an ethical position.

Isnt there a great deal of such research going on, you might ask? Have I been so obsessed
with humanities failures that I have not seen its successes? No, indeed there is a great deal of
excellent research being done that makes efforts to do many of the things I have suggested.
Let me offer a few home-grown examples. Important work is being done here in Wales at
Glamorgan, for example, on television that brings together media studies, cultural studies and
drama to think in national terms about its significance and role. Or, continuing the theme of
nation, the interdisciplinary work by my own departmental colleagues in their BorderLines
projects, that is looking at the interface between the creative and the critical, and at other
forms of border in doing so. Or indeed work at Cardiff on the history of the book which
draws on literary criticism, history, and expertise in illustration. Each of these projects is well
able to articulate its role in the world and they can do so because these projects have
scholarly integrity and specificity. They are not homogenous projects that aim to answer a
single policy-relevant question. Rather they are particular, heterogenous projects that
highlight how multiple disciplinary perspectives in the humanities gain strength by their
difference from one another and yet still have an ability to speak to one another to hold
tensions and varying viewpoints in suspension and therefore articulate complexity. These are
projects working at Derridas divisible limit, his perhaps and if.

I think the future of interdisciplinary study in the humanities needs to have these kinds of
visionary projects, and on a large scale. Such scale is not only about the size of the task, or its
remit, but also about the necessary associated work that makes apparent the works
importance in the real world, and argues for its versions of truth. But I do think that scale
matters in projects themselves, too. Partly as a result of having to publish set amounts of
work on a rolling programme of six years or so there is a great deal of work in the
Humanities which is small in ideas, discovery, impact, in resistance and responsibility. It is
time to think bigger once again. In practice this might mean organising a number of projects
around a specific focus, but that focus should be grand. We have seen evidence of this, and it
has been hugely successful. The Darwin anniversary in 2009 focussed attention on evolution
and saw a huge number of disparate projects brought together, many of them humanities-
based, such as Adrian Desmond and James Moores wonderful book on Darwin and slavery,
Darwins Sacred Cause. The Charles Dickens bicentennial this year looks set to have similar

Certain scientific projects have already shown us the way here, we should not be surprised to
hear. Perhaps the most obvious is CERN, where the search for the elusive Higgs boson has
attracted significant enthusiasm. The responsibility that CERN takes for arguing the
importance of its work is a lesson for the Humanities. It can lead us to useful statements of
the relevance of work in the Humanities, like this, for example:

Why Humanities?
Some areas of humanities research, such as medieval history and Anglo-Saxon
linguistics, seem remote from everyday life and unlikely to bring immediate practical
applications. Are they worth the effort in human and material resources?

This research may take us far away from the conditions of everyday life, but because
it continually pushes at boundaries in thinking and in methodology it is a springboard
for many new developments.

Scholarship in the humanities is where new ideas and methods begin that later
become commonplace - from our understanding about post-colonial nations, which
originated in 19-century curiosity about the history of empire, to the digital book,
which was influenced by work in book history and publishing practices. No amount of
abstract thinking about empire would have brought us postcolonial theory; no amount
of research on paper would have brought about the digital book. Humanities needs the
space for curiosity and imagination.

These are grand claims, but important ones, about the relevance, importance, autonomy, and
creativity of humanities research. But I have plagiarised and directly from CERN. Here is
the original, which is part of CERNs opening statement about itself:

Why fundamental science?

Some areas of scientific research, such as particle physics and cosmology, seem
remote from everyday life and unlikely to bring immediate practical applications. Are
they worth the effort in human and material resources?
This research may take us far away from the conditions of everyday life, but because
it continually pushes at boundaries in thinking and in technology it is a springboard
for many new developments.

Fundamental science is where new ideas and methods begin that later become
commonplace - from the electric light, which originated in 19-century curiosity about
electricity, to the World Wide Web, invented at CERN to allow international teams of
particle physicists to communicate more easily. No amount of applied research on the
candle would have brought us the electric light; no amount of R&D on the telephone
would have brought about the Web. Science needs the space for curiosity and

The kind of big science that CERN exemplifies should be an inspiration to us. We should be
finding a similar big humanities. But I think that the above also reveals that the re-emergence
of the two cultures is simply perpetrating a falsehood because our present utilitarian and
economic view cannot articulate the relevance of the humanities in the way that it can the
sciences. This we must try to change.

Let me close with a slightly frivolous example, but one that highlights why the humanities is
more difficult to argue for, as long as we allow the present boundaries of the debate to remain
the same. It is an example that takes me back to CERN again.

This Higgs Boson, if found, will confirm Peter Higgss view of the standard model of particle
physics, and will reveal to us why things have mass i.e. why, in physical terms, we are all
here. Higgs undertook this work at the University of Edinburgh in the 1960s and 70s, and he
has spoken on numerous occasions of the importance of being in Edinburgh to his research.
But the reason Higgs took a job at Edinburgh in the first place was that he had become fond
of the city in the late 1950s when he visited the Edinburgh Festival. Physics, and the search
for the Higgs boson certainly has drama, but perhaps not quite as literally as we had
imagined. Would we be fascinated by the work of CERN now, would Higgs have developed
his theory anyway? Well, perhaps. But lets not forget the role that fringe theatre has played
in this grand scientific drama and lets not forget that the questions Peter Higgs has been
asking since he sat in sat in some cold church hall watching students perform Hamlet are
essentially some of ours, and some of Hamlets, and essential to the humanities what are
we? why are we here? what does it mean to be human?

Thank You.