Friday, April 16, 2010

Alan Clarke on Interdisciplinary Work

Although he claims to be a Luddite and thus unwilling/unable to post to our blog (not to mention Wikkipedia), Alan Clarke has written the following as part of a book proposal he is sending around to prospective publishers.

I post it on his behalf.

This Proposal Adopts a Broad Interdisciplinary Perspective Which Should Attract Interest in the United States and in Europe and Canada

The most multi-disciplinary works on torture or rendition, of which I am aware, are found within edited anthologies. These necessarily present an eclectic range of disciplinary understandings, differing from author to author, and essay to essay. A given essay in an anthology (on torture or anything else) ordinarily uses the methods and understandings of a single discipline. True interdisciplinarity – the integration of a variety of disciplinary perspectives in a single coherent analysis remains rare. Edited volumes are, therefore, more appropriately seen as multidisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary. Their strength revolves around the many perspectives that they bring to bear on a problem; their weakness is in failing to integrate the differing analyses in a sustained critique of the problem at hand.

Examples of edited anthologies focusing on torture include:

The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary, (William F. Schulz ed., 2007);

The Torture Debate in America 151, 154 (Karen J. Greenberg ed., 2006).

On Torture, (Hilde, Thomas C., ed., 2008);

Torture, A Collection (Sanford Levinson ed., 2004);

America’s Disappeared, (Meeropol, Rachael, ed., Seven Stories Press, 2005).

The strength of this proposal is that it integrates differing perspectives as it examines the complex problem of torture. A full understanding of the phenomenon of torture resists narrowly focused disciplinary analyses and is most usefully considered by employing findings of history, law, psychology, sociology, politics and philosophy. This book proposal aims to do just that. Because both Canada and many European nations were complicit in the U.S. use of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and rendition, this comprehensive and interdisciplinary treatment of the subject should attract a transnational audience.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Myths about Lincoln, Stories about Truth

In response to Mark's thought provoking posts:

A few weeks ago, UVU President Matt Holland gave a lecture about Abraham Lincoln that examined various myths that have grown up around the historical figure. In the process, he took a close look at Lincoln's second inaugural address, especially the parts in which Lincoln steps back from asserting certainty.

Several days later, we exchanged the following emails:

Many thanks. I especially appreciated your question/comment at my Lincoln lecture which got me back on track to make a point I had planned to make but got sidetracked from doing. In fact, I keep meaning to send you a short passage from my book that highlights the most unusual (for a politician in particular) epistemic uncertainty/modesty of Lincoln even as he is pushing for a vigorous defense of an ideal concerning individual human liberty that he simply considers true. For me, it is a remarkable blend of modern and post-modern sensitivities (though he would not have been thinking of it quite that way). I'll send you the passage.


Thanks for the pages from your book. I'm struck by the utter humility you highlight in the speech. You write that Lincoln knew he had no real control over the war and refused to declare it won (contrast George Bush's MISSION ACCOMPLISHED bravado), and your sentence about the "sweeping and radical sense of contingency" is especially powerful. That the contingency is in the context of talk about God, a living God, the God of the Bible, as you write, is striking. There's a phrase you don't mention that, perhaps, even further expresses the distance between the human and the divine in Lincoln's mind -- "shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him." What do we know about God? -- what we ascribe to Him (even the gender and caps).

In any case, this is the kind of epistemic humility to which I am continually drawn. I have worked for a couple of decades on and with a contemporary Austrian writer, Peter Handke, whose work keeps circling around the problems of what and how we know things and who we are depending on how we answer those questions. He undercuts as well as anyone the smug certainties of business and universities and politics and war ("The first casualty of war is language," for instance). And as a child of a German soldier during the war he knows the totalizing and debilitating language of the Nazis (Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein F├╝hrer) and yet simultaneously knows how much we need a (humble) Volk.

So where does this thinker of our times, a good and nuanced thinker, turn for structure and meaning? To myths about Lincoln! His character in the novel "Short Letter, Long Farewell" travels through the United States trying to find his wife who writes him at the beginning "I am in New York. Please don't look for me. It would not be nice for your to find me." I take her to be truth (from Nietzsche's "Supposing truth to be a woman" at the beginning of "Beyond Good and Evil"), and thus the novel is about our troubled relationships with truth. When the character reaches St. Louis, he goes to the movies, and in John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln" he finds truths that are so obviously mythical / filmic that they can work for him, truths that remind him that they're not true while being true. We've got to have stories to live by, and the best ones have a dual structure, a conjunctive "and" that keep us wary of supposed absolutes.

all the best,

In short, for Peter Handke and other contemporary thinkers, the truest stories are the ones that wear their contingency on their sleeves.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Truth: Fiction?

Sadly, this term's class in the evolution of story telling is almost over, but here at the stub end of semester an interesting new set of questions are emerging about the paradox of truth in fiction.

It would appear on the one hand that
all story, by nature or stigma of being identifiably"story," whether asserted to be true story or not, is somehow automatically perceived as less perfectly true than pure, narrative-free information. If someone were to tell you that even mathematics is a kind of story about how the universe works, you might either agree or bristle, but you would immediately recognize that the implication is that mathematics does not simply describe the perfect truth of the world as it is.

On the other hand, even the most perfectly fictive stories, making no direct claims for any sort of verifiable truth at all, will be understood as promoting a view of the world that in some sense is either true or false. When the Vatican objects to a fantasy movie for children, we understand that the Church fathers find some insidious message about how the world really is to be objectionable, even dangerous for young children to imbibe.

Moreover, we have been noticing in class that this applies across many cultural and temporal divides, and that audiences wish to know (or to debate amongst themselves in the retelling) what aspects of a story are
meant to be bracketed as the fictional or fantastic aspects, so that the true or, in common student parlance, realistic qualities of the story can be properly evaluated.

Aristotle once suggested that it is better story telling to allow the impossible than to allow the implausible. Is fictive story telling a kind of probabilistic estimation of the truth, even a sort of Bayesian reasoning from givens? Is that what story telling is
for, in the end, to see what would be true if we (could ever) agree on our priors?

Truth: Interdisciplinary?

A peculiarity of the truth in academia is that it seems to be discipline-specific. One of the more uncanny experiences arising from any lengthy interdisciplinary sojourn is the repeated necessity for exchanging one's epistemological currency nearly every time one crosses an academic border. It is a bit as if knowledge in university departments were still mostly a feudal affair, with each tiny duchy self-authorized to issue its own coin of the realm and raise its own taxes on any intellectual traffic passing through its territory.

This peculiarity obtains not only across the infamous chasm between the "two cultures" of the sciences and humanities, but also across many of the sciences themselves. Even within closely related disciplines, such as the experimental social sciences, the truth-value of data often bears a certifying stamp specific to a particular, local tradition. Which are more reliable, for instance, data acquired from experimental subjects who did not know what the experiment was actually about (as is typical in social and cognitive psychology), or data acquired from fully informed experimental subjects motivated by immediate cash reward (as is de rigeur in behavioral economics)? The conundrum lies not so much in any profound metaphysical differences as in the different traditions of assuming that certain kinds of information are better than others, when such traditions often define each discipline's sense of its own unique mission.

Is it any wonder then, that it becomes difficult to measure how much research is interdisciplinary at all? The thought crossed my mind after reading the previous post (see below), on the curious contradiction between the assertion of policymakers as "an article of faith" that interdisciplinary research will be crucial to tomorrow's world and the "fuzzy definition of an interdisciplinary program" that confounds the measurement of interdisciplinary activity.

It also led me back to the questions raised in earlier posts (just a little further below) about whether and how the data and theory of the evolutionary neurosciences would revolutionize literary criticism. Until and unless literary critics and neuroscientists forge a common currency as to what counts as true--or at least as importantly true--the disciplines may poach information or ideas from each other but remain more or less locked up behind their castle walls.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Interdisciplinarity in Science

Bob Robbins, from the Biology Department at UVU, sent me the following:

NSF Study Looks at Who Does Interdisciplinary Research

U.S. graduate students in the agricultural sciences are more likely than those in other fields to carry out interdisciplinary research, according to a first-ever analysis of the issue by the National Science Foundation. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology leads the nation in the percentage of its doctoral students whose dissertations involve more than one discipline.

But beyond that, it's not clear what the data say about this important subject. It's an article of faith among science policymakers that interdisciplinary research is essential to address society's most pressing technological challenges, from energy independence to improved health care. But don't ask them to measure it.

The National Academies' upcoming assessment of doctoral research programs, for example, asked departments what percentage of their faculty members were associated with other programs. But the data "aren't very satisfactory," says Charlotte Kuh, study director. Part of the problem is the fuzzy definition of an interdisciplinary program,she adds.

[for the rest of the article, go HERE]

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Literature and Science

As I've watched Mark Jeffreys think about evolutionary advantages to various types of behavior, including sex and religion, I have found the questions fascinating.

And this semester, as Mark is thinking with his students about storytelling, I've been especially interested, given my background in German literature.

Now comes this article and discussion in the NY Times to give a bit of context for me, laying out the mutual benefit of studying literature and cognitive science in conjunction with one another:

Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know

Published: March 31, 2010

To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.”


Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?

Room for DebateCan combining neuroscience and Jane Austen get a literature Ph.D. a job?

Post a Comment »
Haskins Laboratories

An M.R.I. of a brain highlighting areas used during reading.

(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.

As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.

Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

Ms. Zunshine, whose specialty is 18th-century British literature, became familiar with the work of evolutionary psychologists while she was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1990s. “I thought this could be the most exciting thing I could ever learn,” she said.

[the rest of the article HERE]

[and a discussion of the ideas HERE]

Student Succuss

I'm thinking, this morning, how easy it is to make mistakes.

I make a lot of them myself, and they usually occur when I'm not paying good attention -- or when I'm writing on a board in front of a class. Mistakes can be embarrassing, but I've learned to deal with that. Mostly.

One of the reasons to get an education is to limit the extent of that kind of embarrassment.

So it's doubly troubling when the official institution enabling the education announces its own lack of attention. This photo, taken yesterday, makes my point.