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September 20, 2012

cruising in the ruins: the question of disciplinarity in the post/medieval university [from punctum books]

by BABEL Working Group

Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2012. 95 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0615697659. Free download.

Published: 2012-09-10
To download the book, go HERE.

This small book comprises the program of the 2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group, hosted by Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts from 20-22 September 2012, and co-hosted by Boston College, College of Charleston, George Washington University’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, Harvard University, M.I.T., Palgrave Macmillan, punctum books, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and Tufts University.

Featured Speakers: Jane Bennett, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Carolyn Dinshaw, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, David Kaiser, Marget Long, and Sans façon [Charles Blanc and Tristan Surtees].

Sessions: The Inter-Discipline of Pedagogy; Getting Medieval on Medieval Studies; Medieval Touchscreen; Families Old and New; Going Postal: Networks, Affect, and Retro-Technologies; Digging in the Ruins: Medievalism and the Uncanny in the University [I & II]; Future-Philology; Intellectual Crimes: Theft, Punking, and Roguish Behavior; Impure Collaborations; Enjoying the End (Again); Textual Fault-Lines; All In a Jurnal’s Work: A BABEL Wayzgoose; Ecomaterialism; The Urmadic University; Synaesthetics: Sensory Integration Against the Disciplines; Hoarders/Hordes; Parts, Wholes, and the New; Will It Blend? Equipping the Humanities Lab; What Is Critical Thinking?; #Occupy Boston: Humanities and Praxis; Se7en Undeadly ScIeNceS: The Trivium and Quadrivium in the Multiforking University; Wild Fermentation: Disciplined Knowledge and Drink; The Historiographic Ghost.


Thus I propose an abandonment of disciplinary grounding but an abandonment that retains as structurally essential the question of the disciplinary form that can be given to knowledges. This is why the university should not exchange the rigid and outmoded disciplines for a simply amorphous interdisciplinary space in the humanities (as if we could still organize knowledge around the figure of “Man”). Rather, the loosening of disciplinary structures has to be made the opportunity for the installation of disciplinarity as a permanent question. . . . [which would] keep open the question of what it means to group knowledges in certain ways, and what it has meant that they have been so grouped in the past.

~Bill Readings, The University in Ruins

We all know what severe pressures the University is under today—economic, social, and cultural—pressures that have led to a certain amount of disciplinary hand-wringing and jockeying in relation to the practical “use-value” (or valuable non-practicality) of some disciplines and fields versus others. Some have argued that disciplinary security is best assured when disciplines merge with each other and form new, cross-disciplinary alliances. And while faculty both distance themselves from and ally with each other over these matters, university administrators and state legislatures are de-funding departments and programs, weakening general education curricula, and undermining faculty governance of the University’s mission and programs of study.

In his book The University in Ruins, Bill Readings argued “the University’s ruins offer us an institution in which the incomplete and interminable nature of the pedagogic relation can remind us that ‘thinking together’ is a dissensual process; it belongs to dialogism rather than dialogue.” And what might be needed now is

not a generalized interdisciplinary space but a certain rhythm of disciplinary attachment and detachment, which is designed so as not to let the question of disciplinarity disappear, sink into routine. Rather, disciplinary structures would be forced to answer to the name of Thought, to imagine what kinds of thinking they make possible, and what kinds of thinking they exclude. (Readings, The University in Ruins, p.176)

So, let’s not be interdisciplinary for a moment, nor necessarily anti-disciplinary. Let’s re-sound our disciplinary wells, while also, inevitably, bumping into each other and occasionally hooking up, like Democritus’s atoms. Holding on to our disciplinary objects and methods and ways of knowing, while also keeping them open to futurity and the surprise of the stranger, let’s cruise each other. Let’s swerve, without steering, through the movement-filled “void” that is the university, cyberspace, society, the world. Atoms, monads, particles, singularities, seeds, souls, kernels, cells, events, appearances — gathering in molecules, crowds, assemblages, drifts, swarms, parliaments, strikes, clouds, hives, cascades, collisions, waves, one-night stands, spontaneous acts of metempsychosis, a fine spray of perfume through the atomizer, hanging in the night air. ATOM is from the Greek “atomos,” meaning “uncuttable” — don’t cut our budgets, don’t try to reduce us any further, to liquidate and consolidate what we do. We’re what’s irreducible in the university — so many modes and methods of being and acting, of chemical reaction, of natality, of swerve. As Lucretius tells us, the detritus of destroyed objects is the atomic dust that gives rise to all things. In 2010 we convened “after the end” of the post-catastrophe of everything. In 2012 we’re meeting in the post-post-catastrophe dust, to reassert the atomic weight of our respective fields, disciplines, and methods and, of course, to give rise to new things.

We are often tempted to demonstrate what the humanities can do for the sciences, and what the sciences can do for the humanities, but the 2012 Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group, “cruising in the ruins,” proposes that the question NOT be, “How can the sciences be more humanistic?” or, “How can the humanities be improved through science” (the “merger” or “inter-” approach). Rather, how can we reconstitute our atomized projects in new ways as we collectively rethink the stamp, the style, the value of distinct disciplinary approaches to common concerns and questions, while also cruising each other’s “bodies” of knowledge?

We invited medievalists, humanists of all stripes, scientists, social scientists, and artists to experiment with performing their respective methods in proximity to one another. This is a speculative practice because, despite being uncuttable or irreducible, we’re falling through space and time, falling into one another, and always in the process of swerving. What we do next is uncharted. So let’s not reduce disciplinary difference to one yawning crack between the humanities and the sciences. The divisions of disciplinary knowledge are legion and manifold, capillaried and filigreed. The idea is to have a conference in which disciplinary and field differences are sharpened as we converge on shared objects, subjects, terms, genres, tools, materials, concerns, methods, and approaches:

archive, body/embodiment, crux, gene, map, matter/hyle, memory, mind/mentality, museum, narrative, relic, trope, record, life,bios/zoê, surface/plane, autopoesis, geometry, encyclopedia, gender, trial, principle, disease, parasite, immanence, physics/physis, adaptation, speed, study, laboratory, element, animal, angel, posthuman, experiment, species, reproduction, genius, ledger, laboratory, classification, tool, semblance, earth/ground, recess, affect, demon, ontogeny, machine, deconstruction, ipseity, fold, frame, collective/assemblage, trans-, virus/viral, architecture, vein, geometry, depth, creature/creaturely, camera, set, ecology, dwarf, outside, exemplarity, network, cyborg, proof, book, time, immunity, web, surplus, logic, force, mesh, neighbor, environment, planet, contingency, psyche, liminal, digital, mineral, haeccity, architecture, ghost, word, page, pocket, artifice/artificial, humanism, dream, sovereignty, calculus, program, animate/inanimate, monster, residual/remainder, complexity, code, case study, plant, waste, anomaly, queer, being, speculum/mirror, form, intelligence, star, thing, self-organizing, space, dualism, history, abstract, image, person/homunculus, media, metaphysics, dynamism, tradition/history, organic/inorganic, vitalism, computer, prosthesis, wild/wilderness, perspective, velocity, avatar, chart, virtual, liquid, theorem, random, splicing, techne/technology, sex, chaos, etcetera.

The university and the disciplines traversing it (and the disciplines traversed by the university as super-structure) are phenomena with medieval roots and uncertain futures. Medieval university studies were ostensibly contained by the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), but the meanings of, and divisions between, these subjects were under constant interrogation and revision, even as older, newer, and alternate designations (dialectic, philosophy, theology, natural science, forensic, polemic, etc.) continually remade, and eventually unmade, the traditional taxonomies. “cruising in the ruins” seeks to engage both the architectonics and mobility of knowledge; the cleavages between ways of knowing; the impurities of cross-contamination between disciplines and fields and temporalities; the threat/promise of post/humanism and the post/humanities; the shape(s) of disciplinary crisis today; the aesthetics of scholarship; discipline & pleasure (and pain); the secession or amputation or orphaning of the humanities; how to foment disciplinary glamour; what the Situationists can tell us about pedagogy; DIY medievalist agitprop; the personifications of knowledge; intra-university affects; town and gown; the reservoirs of metaphors in other people’s jargon; what the “uni-” in “university” and “universe” might mean; what the “after” in “after inter-disciplinarity” might portend; what misfit heterotopias might be possible in a new multiversity; what the “cruising” in “cruising in the ruins” might invite.

The intimacy with an unknown body is the revelation of . . . distance at the very moment we appear to be crossing an uncrossable interval. Otherness, unlocatable within differences that can be known and enumerated, is made concrete in the eroticized touching of a body without attributes. A non-masochistic jouissance (one that owes nothing to the death drive) is the sign of that nameless, identity-free contact — contact with an object I do not know and certainly do not love and which has, unknowingly, agreed to be momentarily the incarnated shock of otherness. In that moment we relate to that which transcends all relations.

~Leo Bersani, “Sociability and Cruising”

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