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Thinking about ‘the Contemporary’: Between Interdisciplinarity and Indisciplinarity

March 7, 2011

[An earlier version of this note was presented as keynote lecture for the Arts Faculty Seminar on Interdisciplinary Research in Humanities, Benaras Hindu University, 9-10 September 2010]

It cannot be emphasized enough how critically important the theme of the Seminar is – especially for us in India today but more generally in the world at large. We need to think of the idea of interdisciplinarity in much more fundamental and radical ways today if we are to even begin to meet the intellectual challenges posed by ‘our contemporary’.

Before I proceed, let me also clarify that the term ‘indisciplinarity’ in the title of my talk, is not simply there for its shock-value. I believe that we are today at the threshold of a fundamentally new condition where there is a serious question mark over old knowledges and disciplines as they emerged in the course of the last few centuries.

The crisis of these disciplines and bodies of knowledge stems, in the first place, from a recognition that those knowledges, despite their very important role and contribution, actually arose from within a very specific cultural-historical universe – that of post-Enlightenment Europe. But it also stems from the fact that we are living in fundamentally new times, in times when most of what we know of the world, what older disciplines taught us, are being seriously questioned. Let us take the instance of the ‘economy’ and its relation to what we today call ‘ecology’. We have hitherto known the latter to be a mere ‘subset’ of the former: we have know all along that the latter exists only as ‘natural resources’ that go into the economy as raw material. Our contemporary moment presents us with another possibility – that the relationship might indeed have to be reversed and that we must begin to see the economy as a subset of the ecology.

However, this is not the only way in which the discipline of economics stands problematized. Take the problem of waste: everything that the economy was supposed to eject, expel, excrete in the course of producing the supposedly healthy, ‘high-growth’ body, has now come around to haunt it. Of course, waste still does not form the province of economics but everywhere we are haunted today by that excess, that remainder – from toxic and nuclear wastes to mountains of crushed cars, unhandleable e-waste etc – not to speak of the clogged drains, overflowing plastic and other garbage that adorns life in urban India. I shall suggest below that ‘waste’ can indeed be seen as the paradigmatic question that will haunt the 21st century just as production as haunted the last two. I will also suggest later that this is true not only of economics but also of disciplines like ‘political science’ that have yet to recognize the waste, the excess, the excreta that two centuries of its dominance have produced.

Read the full post in Critical Encounters

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