Practising Interdisciplinary Conversations

Felicity Callard (an academic at Durham University in the Department of Geography and the Centre for Medical Humanities) is participating in a Bio-Humanities Interchange on September22, 2016 at 4:00 in the IPRH Lecture Hall, Levis Faculty Center, Fourth Floor (919 West Illinois Street, Urbana, IL).


ConfigurationsHow do a poet and a cognitive neuroscientist think together—in conversation—about practices of experimentation, noise and voice in their respective research practices? James Wilkes (a poet) and Sophie Scott (a cognitive neuroscientist) have just published an ‘Interdisciplinary Conversation’ in Configurations—a journal that is the official publication of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts, and which is co-edited by your colleague Professor Melissa Littlefield, in the Department of English (who works across a number of disciplinary boundaries in her own research on literature and science). What, moreover, can attending to the form as well as substance of interdisciplinary conversations help open up for those of us intrigued by the shifting plate tectonics of disciplinary boundaries evident in the university today?

I admit partiality, here. I first read Wilkes’ and Scott’s conversation in draft formas I was embarking on a new interdisciplinary collaboration with James that focuses on rest and its opposites (noise, work, exertion, tumult) in neuroscience, mental health, the arts and the everyday. James and I were figuring out if and how we might be able to work and think together. How might his poetry and creative criticism, my efforts to mine the fertile seams that enjoin the humanities and the social sciences (as well as the research and practice of many others from many other disciplines) cross so as to allow new routes into rest as a clinical, aesthetic, historical and physiological problem?

What I lovedand continue to loveabout the conversation that Wilkes and Scott published in Configurations was their taking seriously conversation both as a complex genre and as a place to try things out rather than communicate to the other already established positions. They do not attempt to secure false equivalence between the tools and methods through which each engagesas poet and laboratory scientistin experiment. Nor do they pine for a future in which science and poetry might embrace one another in integrated bliss. Their conversation, rather, pries open how concepts and forms emerge in the sciences and in the arts, and how they are forgotten and abandoned. It is interested as much in the labours of un-doing and recursiveness, as in the building of new structures. Their conversation allows us to think anew about the temporal scales through which we might understand the making of scientific knowledge as well as the making, and re-making of literary canons.

On many occasions over the course of the two-year residency (“Hubbub”) that I have directed in The Hub at Wellcome Collection, I and many collaborators have thought about and talked about the seductiveness and liveliness of experimentas practice, form, and ethos. We have been attempting to shape a different topology of disciplinary practiceone in which the arts and humanities are not simply appendages to other epistemological domains (as has so often been the case in ‘Sci-Art’ projects). Attending to the long and compacted history of experiment in the arts as well as in the sciences has been one of my strongest epistemological commitments in the course of this residency. The seduction and surprise that Wilkes’ and Scott’s essay engender in me, even after multiple readings, makes me realize how much more there is to be done to diversify the genres, forms, and styles through which we make interdisciplinarity in the academy today.

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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