Surprised by 'joins'

Bryn Mawr faculty analyze the language of interdisciplinary conversations

Editor's note: Academic disciplines in the western world have continually evolved from within as well as changed in response to ideas and information from without. The sciences, literatures, philosophy and art history, among others, however, still use their own languages, often with quite different methods and rules for establishing concepts and truths. What, then, is the nature of "inter-disciplinary" work?

Particular disciplines may tackle different parts of a complex problem without needing to alter fundamentally their approaches. They may adjust their methods and standards in order to forge a common language, techniques, and standards of research-or even seek rules of translation from one disciplinary discourse to another. Yet another model treats the differences between disciplinary languages as themselves generative, using the tensions they produce to explore underlying presumptions, which in turn yield both broader patterns and rethinking of the disciplines themselves. A Bryn Mawr faculty trio-literary scholar, biologist and physicist-explores such an approach in a manuscript circulated this spring, which is excerpted here.

Anne Dalke, senior lecturer in English and coordinator of the Feminist and Gender Studies Program; Paul Grobstein, Eleanor C. Bliss Professor of Biology and director of the Center for Science in Society; and Elizabeth McCormack, associate professor of physics, have participated over the past two years in interdisciplinary exchanges sponsored by the Center for Science in Society through a range of forums that involved faculty, staff and students: a brown bag lunch series on "The Culture of Science/ The Science of Culture"; a colloquium series on time; and working groups on language and emergent systems.

Dalke, Grobstein and McCormack argue that conversations among those trained in disciplines with significantly different languages show a type of interaction "prototypical of creative intellectual work in general." These conversations feature constant interplay between metaphoric, or categorical, representations of ideas and efforts to illustrate them through the use of metonymy. The resulting construction of new frameworks of understanding is characterized in terms of yet another figure of speech, synecdoche, or the use of a part to describe a whole.

Theorizing Interdisciplinarity:
Metaphor and Metonymy, Synecdoche and Surprise


"Learning is always a little bit transgressive, and what we learn around the edges of ... established disciplines often sticks more than what we learn when we're in harness. The pleasure of thinking that ... associations .... of intellectual interest groups are voluntary [involves our] ... search for something that escapes the mantle of duty. ... If the new interdisciplines and study groups that now occupy and preoccupy us so excitingly were to become the center of the academy, they would in turn become conventional, and the center of intellectual interest and provocation would move elsewhere."
-Marjorie Garber, "Groucho Marx and 'Coercive Voluntarism' in Academe,"
The Chronicle of Higher Education 1/10/03.

We have a very different notion: that interdisciplinary conversations are not only pleasurable and transgressive, but also continuously generative. Rather than being inherently escapist, as Marjorie Garber suggests, interdisciplinary academic work is a catalyst for sustainable change in a range of contexts.

We are drawn to participate in such working discussions because they constitute play of a particularly productive sort: insistently enabled by disciplinary training, they just as insistently challenge us to revise the ways in which we understand and employ our own disciplinary terms. We hope our ability to tease out this dynamic here will speak to a range of important issues beyond reinvigorating the disciplines: distinguishing the worth of interdisciplinary exchange from that better described as collaborative, initiating useful changes in the classroom environment and the larger academic community, and understanding how interdisciplinary work might be helpful in addressing social and political problems. ...

We aim here to characterize the ways in which interdisciplinary conversations may construct new knowledge, by drawing and expanding upon the concepts of metaphor and metonymy, on their convergence in synecdoche, and on the surprising ways in which their interaction can contribute to emergent phenomenon.

We explore this dynamic by using, as point of departure and source of our first two defining terms, a 1956 essay entitled "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances," in which Roman Jakobson described the metaphoric and metonymic poles of a continuum of severe language disorders which are known collectively as aphasia. Jakobson interpreted these extremes in relation to two distinct forms of semantic association: one topic may lead to another either metaphorically, through similarity, or metonymically, through contiguity. The two kinds of language behaviors, Jakobson suggested, might be the result of the disturbance of two different sets of cognitive processes. The classic demonstration of the difference between the two hinges on the associations evoked when we hear the word "cat." If we think "dog," we are operating metaphorically (the relation is one between categories); if we think "claw," our response is metonymic (the relation is temporally or spatially contiguous, in this case, between a whole and one of its parts).

In one of our discussions on "The Culture of Science," Assistant Professor of Biology Ted Wong, who specializes in computational science, drew on Jakobson's distinction between metaphoric and metonymic kinds of thinking to posit a split between theoretical and observational scientists so profound that no communication between the two is possible. Ted maintained that theorists come up with metaphors that say something about the natural world by pointing to a set of equations or algorithms. Critics of such a model will ask whether it actually resembles nature. In contrast, observational scientists collect and study metonymies which describe the behavior of a part of nature. In Ted's view, the latter group does not work directly with categories or concepts, but with spatially and temporally related sets of observations. Their results are challenged on their representative quality: are they accurately reported, and are they adequately representative of the larger whole of which they are part or sample? Theorists and observers, in other words, use different kinds of processing to seek answers to different types of questions.

In borrowing the literary terms metaphor and metonymy, Ted was able both to make sense for himself and to communicate to the rest of us his repeated frustrations in getting observational scientists to appreciate the significance of modeling as a research activity. The difficulties were great enough to lead him to suggest that the two perspectives were irreconcilable. However, in the course of several semesters' conversations in "The Culture of Science" and other interdisciplinary working groups, it became clear to us that, rather than setting these two modes of talking and thinking against each other, we had instead been quite insistently inviting an exchange between them.

Ted's terminology caused us to reflect on our own experiences, and to challenge, in turn, his structure of irreconcilable opposition. As we repeatedly found ourselves using others' theory to fuel new questions, and others' new data to provoke our own new theories, we realized that metaphor inevitably generates the exploration of new metonymic relations, which in turn provoke a reconsideration of metaphoric constructions. Once we came to understand that the two modes of thinking were reciprocally productive, we were also able to see that they flourished particularly in conversations among colleagues who used different frameworks for describing the world, different metaphors which they needed to "translate" and elaborate into metonyms, in order to make themselves understandable to one another.

Characterizing these two modes of thinking as metonymic and metaphoric also yields insight into-and perhaps spans-the "two cultures" divide which continues to trouble us more than 50 years after C.P. Snow first called attention to it. While each culture uses both metaphor and metonymy, it may well be that scientists, focused on simple and unifying relations that capture key aspects of an object under study, highlight the metaphoric representation of their ideas. Humanists, who think in terms of many variables and complicated relations in illustrative but unique situations, may employ metonymic expressions more frequently. In interdisciplinary conversations, information is continually translated back and forth between the two systems. In the process, the presumptions which underlie the discussion are continuously and productively altered. This, we posit, could be a distinctive way of bridging the two cultures gap, one which demonstrates a concrete working out of the analysis recently presented by Stephen Jay Gould in The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities (2003). ...

From the perspective of synecdoche, the actions of metaphor and metonymy are not opposed to one another, but rather work together to pull parts out of, and put them back into, wholes. They invite us to attend to them, to dwell in them, to make them live. As forms of language that call attention to themselves, metaphors, metonyms and synecdoche estrange us from what we think we know. That's when language is alive, and makes us lively: when it tunnels out of us into others' cells, makes a connection that "shouldn't" connect. That surprises. Delights. And "makes" us think.

Our interdisciplinary discussion groups also function in important ways as "emergent systems." In emergent systems modeling, researchers have shown that complex behaviors may be created from simple agents subject to a few specific rules of interaction. The interest of such systems derives from their unknown potential, from not knowing in advance what they will create, but anticipating that they will be generative if a few fairly simple starting rules are followed.

We realized, in retrospect, that the very format we implemented in each of our interdisciplinary groups facilitated emergence. We had a few specific initial conditions for each group. For instance, in our brown bag discussions about "The Culture of Science," we invited both new and more experienced members of the faculty from all divisions of the college, as well as several members of the administration, to speak in an alternating sequence. We met in a divisionally neutral venue and limited each week's conversation to one hour, which had the effect of keeping participants interested and coming back for more. We asked discussion leaders to show the group how their own project was illustrative of a larger whole. All our conversations were summarized on a web page and further discussion was invited in an on-line forum, which served as a resource for new speakers to draw upon. We eventually came to understand that our simple "rule of interaction" in these emergent systems was synecdochal, in a distinctively generative way: that is, the conversation functioned through the interplay of metaphoric and metonymic relations, making new wholes from parts that we disassembled and reassembled. When we achieved this kind of dynamic exchange, as we often did, the conversations were inclusive, rich and challenging.

Out of these discussions have emerged new, much-expanded and still-revisable understandings of the nature of the work that engages us all. In an era when no one of us can possibly assimilate all available information even within a single field, the driving force of interdisciplinary work is that it offers us a revisable and sustainable way not just to map a direction through the crowded landscape, but to alter its contours. ...

Beyond their service to local goals, the lessons we're evolving in our academic working groups might usefully contribute to productive changes in the world at large. Catherine Stimpson '58 has challenged academic institutions to find a renewed sense of relevancy to contemporary world conditions: "our survival depends on bringing to bear a multiplicity of perspectives upon life's forces and phenomena, its movements and complexities. Our constructed sense of life must be as rich and thick and hybrid and multiplicitous as life itself." Our claim here that interdisciplinary work is not only pleasurable, but a needed act of engagement, is one response to her call.

A draft of the full essay may be read online.

Majors at Bryn Mawr and interdisciplinary work
In describing the requirements for majors, Bryn Mawr's undergraduate course catalogue states that a student's education is "not simply exposure to many ideas and disciplines, but development of competence and some degree of mastery in at least one."

First-year courses such as Urban Culture and Society (Growth and Structure of Cities 185) may introduce students to fundamental issues and debates in different disciplines. Higher-level courses that focus on a central topic from several disciplinary perspectives have prerequisites of courses from other departments, in philosophy and music, for example, or languages.

If you were a German major at Bryn Mawr in the 1950s or 60s, you would now find that you could concentrate on literature or on German and German-speaking cultures from a wide range of perspectives that include film, mass media, the history of ideas, urban anthropology and folklore. You would also discover interdisciplinary majors like Growth and Structure of Cities, which requires its own courses as well as those from other departments, or areas of concentration like environmental studies or feminist and gender studies, which add to or alter a traditional major with courses from other departments and require a special junior or senior seminar.

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