The Big Idea

This podcast is a response to two facts about academic work today:

The first fact is that scholarly work, despite its importance, rarely reaches a broad public audience.  Unless counterintuitive findings appear in major newspapers or are popularized on various blogs and shared via social media, the general public has no means of seeing the various ways academic work speaks to contemporary issues.

The second fact is that scholarly work rarely reaches a broad academic audience.  Outside of the occasionally discipline-defining work of, recently, Timothy Morton or David Harvey or Sara Ahmed, most academic publications are aimed at (and read by) narrower and narrower circles of one’s peers within the confines of one’s own disciplinary boundaries.

Neither of these ought to be the case.  Scholarly work very often takes on the same problems that politicians and the public grapple with — issues of freedom and rights, race and policing, health care and research, education and accountability, and so on.  And very often, scholars working within entirely different disciplines, unbeknownst to one another, bring their very different perspectives, their very different methodologies and canonical texts, to bear on the same issues.  A book that focuses on the literary representations of Caribbean performance practices shares a theoretical foundation with an ethnographic study of protein modelers. A philosophical book on moral emotions with support from Tolstoy and Wittgenstein is echoed in studies of black feminist autobiography.

The thing is, none of these authors would ever just happen to read each other; they wouldn’t even encounter each other at the national conferences in their respective fields. Because they publish in different journals and they aim at different audiences, the occasions for discovering these areas of common concern are rare indeed.

And that is to say nothing of how far removed from a public discourse all of this is.

So the general public, and politicians, and increasingly university administrators, too, say, “What good are the humanities and the social sciences? What are they for?

Broadly speaking, this show is an attempt to find out.

Let me give an example. Two different kinds of crises these days — the Syrian out-migration and the Black Lives Matter movement — raise hard questions about a nation’s responsibility to its citizens; about the way citizenship is defined, acquired, and demonstrated; about moral obligations to others deriving from a broader human rights framework; and about how all of these questions come together with notions of belonging having to do with race, class, religion, crime, health, gender, and so on.

In each of these crises, it’s not the drawing of lines between persons and non-persons that’s at issue – in both cases, there’s the sense that it’s being done incorrectly, say unjustly. Any impulse to correct such injustice will have to deal with the reasons it’s being done wrong presently. And just this kind of problem, which is all-pervasive in human life at global and local scales, calls for the humanities and the social sciences.

Because the primary aim of this show is to provide a forum for conversation across disciplinary divides, such that each scholar, and the general audience, comes away with something of an enlarged sense of a given set of problems, an episode of Interdisciplinary Radio dealing with these issues of personhood and citizenship in Black Lives Matter and the Syrian migrant crisis would bring together academic scholars from a wide variety of fields to unearth the ways in which these questions are difficult and offer some means of addressing their difficulty.

A show dedicated to the above topic might include scholars from the fields of Art History, English Literature, French and Spanish Literature, the History of Science, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Law.

Two of these scholars, one in Art History and the other in the History of Science, remind us that the ideal Enlightenment person was thought not only in terms of national belonging, but in terms of technological ability.  A third scholar, in English Literature, points out that this Enlightenment subject was also imagined in a particularly economic way: the very picture of the healthy mind imitated a certain picture of the circulation of money.

The legal scholar also talks about the relationship of mental functioning to full personhood,  focusing not only on compromised capacity as a legal defense or an excuse, but also on the ways in which challenges to one’s mental capacity could be and were used to deprive a citizen of rights and property in 18th and 19th century American courtrooms.

Lastly, the Spanish and French Literature scholar and the American Studies and Ethnicity professor concentrate on notions of belonging and personhood that run alongside the standard figure of the Enlightenment subject, showing forth the limits of that European sense of personhood and human worth, and providing new eyes through which to see the phenomenon of popular protests and the figure of the migrant.

The big idea is, then, is this:  resolving either of the crises I’ve been talking about will require gathering together the assumptions and the examples that underlie the various parties’ claims and counterclaims to justice, and imagining collaboratively different models and better futures.

If the humanities and the social sciences are for anything, shouldn’t it be something like this?