Masters of many universes

March 24, 1995

Students now need to be expert in more than one subject in order to answer the major questions posed by modern society, argues Colin MacCabe.

The call to interdisciplinarity is almost as old as the disciplines themselves. It was only by the end of the 19th century that the total dominance of a classical curriculum had given way to a situation in which one could clearly recognise the social sciences: economics, sociology and anthropology and the humanities of history, philosophy and literary criticism. And yet the call for interdisciplinarity was heard from the end of the First World War. Columbia University in the United States instituted its contemporary civilisation course in 1919 in recognition that the major questions of contemporary society and culture involve more than one discipline. In England, in a similarly direct reaction to the trauma of war, Cambridge set up an English degree which both eminent English literary theorists I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis envisaged as the setting for interdisciplinary inquiry.

Much of the history of universities since then can be read as a variety of attempts through ventures as diverse as area studies or comparative literature to give interdisciplinary research and teaching a firm base within the universities. As we approach the end of the century the problems around interdisciplinarity remain the major question facing the humanities and social sciences in their efforts to provide teaching and research which will be of real benefit to society.

In many ways the development of film and media studies over the past 25 years shows the problems of interdisciplinarity. Film and television, as all the forms of 20th-century entertainment dependent on the exploitation of new technological advances, requires analysis which cuts across disciplinary divisions. In film and TV, the commercial and cultural, the economic and the aesthetic cannot be separated. And yet what has happened is that a film studies, devoted largely to aesthetic and cultural questions has developed alongside a media studies defined largely in terms of social and economic concerns. One might have hoped, 25 years ago, that as the universities engaged with contemporary culture, they would have to recast their disciplinary assumptions. What has happened is that contemporary culture has been divided up within those assumptions in ways that make it difficult if not impossible for the universities to produce the kind of knowledge that is urgently required if we are to understand better the world of images in which we live.

A starting point for any new engagement with the disciplines must recognise their strengths. Their durability is not the product of some academic conspiracy but their deep engagement with fundamental practices. If the impulse that produces the call for interdisciplinarity is sound - the world, by and large, does not present itself to us in forms that correspond to the disciplines - there is little doubt that by and large interdisciplinarity has failed to deliver. It often deserves the obloquy heaped on it by academic conservatives as a recipe for ignorance. The crucial step is to distinguish between the disciplines as practices and as representations. In so far as a discipline claims to represent the world, it is inevitably incorrect. But what is fundamental to a discipline is not this or that picture of the world but the practices that sustain it: textual criticism in English, participant observation in anthropology, the exploration of an archive in history.

The problem that now confronts us is to nurture students who are trained in more than one discipline and who, in that training, understand what it is to apprentice oneself in a new discipline. This is the aim of the London Consortium, a new doctoral programme involving the Architectural Association, the British Film Institute, Birkbeck College and the Tate Gallery. The course starts with a first year which is taught. This is to introduce the students to problems which require familiarity with more than one discipline and then to give them the intellectual and technical means to gain that familiarity. The new information technologies promise to enable such multi-disciplinary training. The aim is to produce students who are neither terrified nor complacent when they realise that the problem they wish to understand rquires them reading an unfamiliar bibliography.

Colin MacCabe is head of research and education at the British Film Institute.

Next week: culture, film and media studies special

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