A Heretical View?

Bristol (old)

The Politics and Pleasures of Hybrid ‘Creative Practice-led Research’ – A Heretical view?

(A talk originally given to students working with Professor Jane Rendell at the Bartlett School of Architecture, 2006).

I’ll begin by explaining something of what I intend by my title: The Politics and Pleasures of Hybrid ‘Creative Practice-Led Research – a Heretical View? Working in a university as a Reader in Visual Art Practice, I have a rather particular job. Officially, my post requires that I teach, supervise doctoral students, undertake and publish research, support others to do the same, and that I continue some form of professional practice appropriate to my post. The types of skills and competences this list of tasks involves will be obvious enough. However, this list misses out the fact that I am also a politician. That is to say, much of what I do on a daily basis is to try to understand, work with, and influence, the dynamics of power in academic research in art and design, its funding, and its relationship to the non-academic world. I try to do this at a faculty, university or national level. This is the ‘politics’ that my title refers to.

The root of the word ‘professor’ – the top of the academic hierarchy – is the word ‘profess’, which means to make a public statement of belief. Many of the particular pleasures of academic and professional life come from the confirmation of certain kinds of belief. This is why the word ‘pleasure’ appears in my title. The phrase ‘creative practice-led research’ is taken from a recent Arts and Humanities Research Council Report on art and medicine. It signifies what people in art and design education say they do when they want to get their practice funded as research. A good deal of my time is spent helping these people translate what they do into the language of ‘creative practice-led research’. So I’ll also say something about the relation of language to belief.

I have left until last what is for me the most important aspect of my title. ‘Hybridity’ means very different thinks to different people, but what I have in mind is Salman Rushdie’s description in his essay In Good Faith, where he says of The Satanic Verses that it (I quote):

Celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.

I like this altogether unacademic description because it seems to capture qualities that the term ‘interdisciplinary’ neglects. My only quarrel with it as a description is that it is forgetful of the fact that what Rushdie calls mongrelization is also the process that keeps traditions alive – that helps, if you like, to keep what is vital in the experience of the past available to the present. I particularly like this description because Rushdie refers to songs and I have been working with the way songs can form a bridge between memory, place and identity. One of the songs I’ve been concerned with, a song still in circulation today, is the result of a process of mongrelization that has gone on for about two thousand five hundred years.

Later in the same essay Rushdie refers to this process of mongrel hybridization as one of things and people leaking ‘into one another, like flavours when you cook. I think this is a very precise simile, one that adds the element of personal transformation through leakage that terms like ‘interdisciplinary’ overlook. However, while Rushdie’s description suggests the personal, almost visceral pleasures of the blending of different understandings and orientations that occurs in certain kinds of art, it misses the politics and pleasures of ‘interdisciplinarity’ that I want to reflect on tonight. Finally, I suspect that my views, particularly concerning academic paradigms and language, may appear ‘heretical’. That is, of course, for you to decide.

I find the term ‘interdisciplinary’ problematic. I will try to explain why by referencing some research I did last year. For reasons that it would take too long to explain, I found myself asking why there are no more than half a dozen references to music – and none at all to country music – in the 292 pages of Lucy R. Lippard’s classic text, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (1997). Since Rebecca Solnit, another feminist writer on landscape and environmental politics, has made very good use of country music to identify the pre-suppositional assumptions underpinning some of the most problematic elements of contemporary US politics, its absence from Lippard’s book intrigued me.

The Lure of the Local is the product of Lippard’s most extensive engagement, as a feminist writer on visual art and culture, with cultural geography – particularly the cultural geography of Georgetown Island in Maine, which she describes as the ‘bedrock place in my life’. Given both her engagement with cultural geography and her unconventional use of a second, autobiographical narrative, which runs along the top of each page, the book is often spoken of as a classic piece of interdisciplinary writing. I would question this classification for the following reasons.

In a later book – On the Beaten Track: Tourism, Art and Place (1999) – Lippard acknowledges both some familiarity with what she calls ‘redneck music’ and, more significantly, that despite what she calls her ‘New York radicalism’, she retains (I quote): the ‘values, class belligerencies and anxieties, loves and obsessions’ of her ‘upper-middle-class’ New England forebears. In short, she acknowledges that a particular set of assumptions, a particular underlying paradigm if you like, has informed all her thinking. I would call that paradigm the universalising “East Coast” vision of WASP America, a vision that informs the thinking of people on both the Left and the Right of US politics, drawing its moral authority from the Puritan myths of the Founding Fathers.

What is central here is that cultural geography as a discipline helps us to understand the relationship between cultural differences and geographical location. Rebecca Solnit, whose work in some ways parallels Lippard’s, makes particularly good use of cultural geography to reflect on the dominant East Coast culture and its difference from that of her own region – she is based in San Francisco. This enables her to show how US attitudes to the environment are inseparable from the same pre-suppositional assumptions that underpin Lippard’s universalising Puritan vision.

Having identified traces of this East Coast Puritan paradigm in Lippard’s work, I start to hear something in her texts that I had not heard before. In the forward to Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document, Lippard dismisses her own bodily experience, at what she calls the ‘prosaic biological/autobiographical level’, in order to focus on the ‘higher’ concerns of theory. I now hear that dismissal as confirming Carolee Schneeman’s identification of a specific and wide-spread ‘prudishness and puritanical fear’ of the body in first and second generation American feminist criticism. Lippard also insists that Susan Hiller’s: ‘interest in popular culture is redemptive rather than popularist’. What has mass appeal as “popularist” is implicitly identified, by juxtaposition with the word ‘redemptive’, as “damning”. I now hear in that distinction those same Puritan assumptions. Having once heard the trace of this Puritan paradigm in Lippard’s work, I find myself left with a question about what is assumed to be the interdisciplinarity of The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. That question can be formulated as follows:

If our methodologies are derived from intellectual disciplines that rest on certain paradigmatic assumptions, and if interdisciplinary work takes place between or at the edge of, those paradigmatic assumptions, how come the Lure of the Local ends up confirming the “values, class belligerencies and anxieties, loves and obsessions” – that run through Lippard’s writing? Surely a real interdisciplinary engagement with cultural geography would have required Lippard to recognise regional and other differences that put her own Puritan, universalising vision in question?

Or, to put this another way: shouldn’t good interdisciplinary praxis work with, and reflect on, differences in paradigmatic assumptions? Shouldn’t that work and reflection modify both the individual praxis itself and the paradigmatic assumptions it’s based on? That is, if our praxis is genuinely interdisciplinary, shouldn’t this change the ways in which – as academics or professionals – we engage with the world? This is, after all, one of the traditional outcomes of any good educational experience.

These are not simply academic questions. They also relate to the interaction between the academic politics of knowledge production and the wider political world on which it impacts. This brings me to the ‘politics’ of academic research. Mats Alvesson and Kaj Skoldberg have identified how academic politics hinders good qualitative research. They observe, for example, that (I quote): ‘the dominance relations and struggles for status in the research community do not facilitate responsiveness to good argument’, and that common obstacles to ‘healthy, wide-ranging debate’ are the influence of ‘contemporary fads and fashions’ on one hand, and (I quote) ‘the strong tendency for researchers to get stuck in a particular paradigm and be captivated by their own language games’ on the other.

As a way of thinking about academic politics, I want to offer you a rather simplistic but none the less indicative set of distinctions between disciplinary, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary modes of academic practice. These are collaged together from a variety of sources – largely from texts from the sociology of knowledge. As I’ve already indicated, I’m very well aware that the positions I’m going to identify are reductive. In actuality these are complex and mutually interrelated positions located not simply in opposition to each other but in a continuous dance of limit and possibility. However, for the sake of brevity and to make a point, I’ll treat them as distinct modes of practice.

The first of these modes is discipline-based practice – this can be seen as based in a complex of ideas, methods, values and norms – a paradigm – focused by a specific disciplinary tradition. This mode of practice places particular emphasis on reinforcing and extending the particular competences of the discipline, and on consolidating and refining its specialist methodologies. Some of the distinctive characteristics of discipline-based work are an emphasis on individual ability, on homogeneity, and on processes of validation based on disciplinary consensus. In discipline-based practices it is primarily the community of senior discipline specialists that determines the context in which problems are set and solved and which undertakes the validation of value.

Both feminists and ‘post-modern’ thinkers drawing on post-structuralism have tended to characterise discipline-based practice as hierarchical and, ultimately, repressive. It is seen as predetermining subjectivities, concepts, and strategies, on the basis of an entrenched paradigm that favours the discipline establishment in struggles for interpretive power – and thus status – within the research community.

Counter-arguments tend to stress the need for strong norms and rigorous evaluative criteria so as to combat the problem of that relativism which, as critics of post-structuralism have pointed out, led it to deconstruct every grand narrative except that of a free market economy of knowledge that transforms actors into puppets. Another objection to post-modern critiques of discipline-based practices is that they tend to reinstate the simple binary opposition: disciplinary/bad  // interdisciplinary/good – that post-structuralism was at such pains to disavow.

Until relatively recently there was still a general suspicion of discipline-based practice in fine art – the discipline I studied as a student. This led to a preference for what is called interdisciplinary practice. However, I would suggest that much of what artists call ‘interdisciplinary practice’ could more accurately be called ‘multidisciplinary practice’, a variant of the disciplinary mode. It is based on carefully delimited forms of exchange – frequently technical rather than conceptual – between different types of practice. Artists involved in multi-disciplinary work are primarily committed to enlarging their own professional competences as determined by the paradigms of art to which they subscribe. Their interaction with other practices or disciplines is, in the last analysis, predicated on carefully negotiated divisions of specialist labour or knowledge, not a transformative blending from different paradigms.

An example might be where an artist becomes a ‘specialist service provider’ for a neurologist. The neurologist needs to visualise the workings of the brain in order to better understand the complex interaction between human thought and the physical processes involved. The artist makes a digital piece which helps him do this. While the artist may learn something new from the neurologist and extend her own practice as a result, this new knowledge is absorbed into her existing paradigmatic model of ‘art’, without that model being modified or changed. So, to return to my first example, Lucy R. Lippard’s The Lure of the Local would be, on this understanding, the product of multidisciplinary not interdisciplinary study.

The third mode I want to consider is ‘interdisciplinary’ practice – which can be characterised as engaged in speculative or ‘open conversation’ that involves questioning the paradigmatic positions adopted by practitioners. Practitioners involved in genuinely interdisciplinary projects have to question the assumptions on which their specialist knowledge is based.

In order to move beyond the boundaries of their own specialism – a move necessary to meet the specific demands made by contingencies not captured by their own specialist methodologies – they need to reconfigure their existing skills and question their methodological assumptions. One outcome of interdisciplinary practice would, then, be the production of new or hybrid models or understandings based on the speculative interplay of assumptions and methodologies originally based in distinct discipline paradigms. This would then result in the modification of the individual practitioner’s relationship to their original disciplinary paradigm. It would also change their self-understanding.

Let me put this differently.

In the case of disciplinary and multidisciplinary practice as I have identified them, individuals work to the strengths of, and from within, their specialist practice and disciplinary paradigm. Their investment in their disciplinary paradigm – the complex of ideas, methods, values, norms and competences which licences them to call themselves ‘artist’ or ‘neurologist’ – both produces and limits the intellectual capital they bring to any project. In a ‘multidisciplinary collaboration’ an individual forms a collaborative association to produce new knowledge but, and this is critical, the result further confirms them in the competences of their particular professional paradigm. It does not require that they modify the pre-suppositional assumptions on which their professional identity as ‘artist’ or ‘neurologist’ rests. The result of their project may be new knowledge, but it does not modify the way they understand themselves, their profession or discipline, nor its place in wider academic or social enterprises.

In the case ‘interdisciplinary practice’, based on what I’ve referred to as ‘open conversation’, something more radical appears to happen. Let me quote from a recent paper called Theorizing Interdisciplinarity: The Evolution of New Academic and Intellectual Communities, by Anne Dalke, Paul Grobstein and Elizabeth McCormack, all members of the Centre for Science in Society at Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia. They claim:

‘interdisciplinary conversations are, we believe, already well on the way to becoming the “centre of the academy” and of intellectual life in general. Moreover, the pleasurable and transgressive qualities of such conversations are not only a key part of the reason for their success, but will persist indefinitely as a welcome legacy of the current transformation. The very nature of interdisciplinary, as we understand it, requires that those who engage in it will always be working beyond the edges of what they know how to do well; in conception and methodology. Such work cannot become conventional.[1]

If the term ‘inter-disciplinary’ is taken to mean “between” disciplines”, then it follows that interdisciplinary practice takes place in a space where the paradigmatic assumptions of particular disciplines become ‘weak’, questionable or simply no longer make sense. Consequently, it can be assumed that those who engage in interdisciplinary work will test the conventional limits of the disciplinary paradigm in which they invest as specialists and which, in turn, licences them to call themselves, say, ‘artist’ or ‘neurologist’.

Psychologically speaking, this suggests an intriguing possibility. People engaged in interdisciplinary practices appear to be adopting a position where they willingly metamorphose into a person who is ‘no longer quite an artist according to the dominant paradigm’ or ‘no longer quite a neurologist according to the dominant paradigm’. Given the centrality of dominance relationships and struggles for status in professional and academic communities mentioned earlier, this would be professionally dangerous but socially potentially radical.

Disciplines and professions maintain their status and authority by taking ownership of, and refining, methodologies and conceptual paradigms so as to control some facet of the production of new knowledge. To the extent that a specialist discipline community provides a consensus as to the ideas, methods, values, norms and competences deemed to be productive, it requires that all claims to knowledge be judged with reference to it. In extreme cases, this means that unorthodox claims are simply unrecognisable as new knowledge because they don’t conform to the dominant paradigm. Michael Gibbons and others have suggested that, in the sciences, there appears to be a recurrent historical pattern to this situation. Radical deviations from the dominant paradigm are first described as absurd or misguided by those who have made the heaviest investment in the dominant paradigm. If they persist they are ignored. If the deviation proves to be sufficiently resilient, however, it is finally absorbed by those who act as gate-keepers for the consensus. They then try to claim the it as their own invention.

Geraldine Finn, writing as a radical feminist, has identified the implications of this situation very clearly. She observes that knowledge claims that are not, or cannot be, articulated within authorized categories of thought will be ‘ruled out’ as ‘irrelevant, idiosyncratic, arbitrary, atavistic, subjective … naïve, or merely “relative”[2] – all terms I have heard used by senior academics in the humanities about visual arts doctoral projects that attempt interdisciplinary study. Significantly, Finn acknowledges that, to challenge current paradigms, it is necessary to try to make one’s claims in terms that these recognize ‘as reasonable, rational, and possibly right’. However, she adds that while we may have to contest the dominant paradigm ‘in its terms … we do not have to believe in them. Indeed we must not believe in them’. She insists, and I think this is absolutely critical to any productive understanding of academic and professional politics, that ‘we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us’. She adds:

“Our lives leave remainders (they say more than they mean) just as our categories leave residues (they mean more than they say). Lives and categories are incommensurable”.

It’s from this perspective that I want to return to ‘hybrid’, as opposed to ‘interdisciplinary’, practice.

Earlier I characterising ‘interdisciplinary’ practice as engaged in speculative or ‘open conversation’ that include questioning the paradigmatic positions adopted by practitioners in the different disciplines involved. I also suggested that practitioners in interdisciplinary projects move away from the division of labour based on individual discipline specialisms to an approach were the individual has to reconfigure existing skills and methodological assumptions in response to the specific demands of the project and to the larger contingencies which help determine it.

It is this second engagement, which requires an openness to contingencies – one that follows from Finn’s understanding that that ‘we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us’ – that is critical to hybrid practice. As Finn notes, it requires that we think ‘beyond and between given categorical frameworks’ in what she calls the ‘space-between reality and representation’. Arguably, then, the hybrid practitioner’s relationship to their original disciplinary paradigm and its specialist language is modified, not only by interaction with other discipline paradigms, but also by an acknowledgement of the contingencies never fully captured by the categorical knowledge of academic and profession discourses. Attending to those contingencies helps avoid the strong tendency for researchers to become captivated by their own language games and so start to believe in a particular paradigm.

If, as Finn suggests, interdisciplinarity set out to:

“maintain the openness of the world and its possible truths by speaking always from the contingencies, borders, and boundaries of its master discourses, its discourses of mastery, instead of from the necessities of its dead (fixed, still, enclosed) centre”[3]

– how does this aim sit with the claim that ‘interdisciplinary conversation’ become the preferred and central form of academic discourse? If Dalke, Grobstein and McCormack’s ‘interdisciplinary conversations’ are well on the way to becoming the centre of academy and intellectual life, are they really engaged in working unconventionally beyond the edges of what they know how to do well? Or are caught up in language games about interdisciplinarity that mask the multidisciplinary extention of the efficiency of the ‘master discourse’ of science?

I want to end by referring to a review that Malcolm Miles wrote last year and by making two final points.

It is a review of a discussion day called Artists as Agents for Social Change, held at BALTIC, Gateshead, and published in Engage 15 in the summer of 2004. Malcolm pays particular attention to a collective from Delhi called Sarai (spell), whose members he describes as ‘working culturally and imaginatively but not specifically as artists’.  Among other things, this collective publishes a ReaderMalcolm quotes the following passage from the Introduction to their fourth Reader:

‘This book carries with it the unreasonable expectation that the myriad realities that seek to make themselves known in a world that usually silences them, will find voice, and that we will all find the patience to listen very carefully. These are times for sober reflection’.

I am interested in this statement because of its implications for the notion of what I’ve called  ‘hybrid’ practice.

My first point is that it seemed to me, from reading Malcolm’s review, that this collective is engaged in a form of hybrid practice. It acts like a radical art collective but refuses to ‘believe in’ the category ‘artist’. To repeat Malcolm’s phrase: they work ‘culturally and imaginatively but not specifically as artists’. Their refusal of belief in that category is, I suggest, a mark of a genuinely radical position.

My second point is implicit in the ‘unreasonable’ expectation referred to in the same quotation. This is said to be ‘unreasonable’ because it asks those who habitually speak from a ‘position of mastery’ that they stop believing it that position for long enough to hear voices that are excluded by academic language games.

What is at stake in the challenge of this ‘unreasonable expectation’ for every professional person is the risk of undergoing a metamorphosis. It asks that we respond, not to the pleasures of our own professional or academic situations, but to the needs of others in communal, hybrid contingencies. That response can extend, and extends beyond, our own professional language games and belief in professional paradigms.

Thank you.


[1] Dalke, A, Grobstein, P & McCormack, E 2004 Theorizing Interdisciplinarity: The Evolution of New Academic and Intellectual Communities http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/local/sciosoc/theorizing.html p. 1

[2] Finn. G 1996 Why Althusser Killed his Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence New Jersey: Humanities Press, p. 171.

[3] Finn, G 1996 Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence New Jersey: Humanities Press p. 108.