Monday, October 27, 2008

I/conic Interdisciplinarity

In January, Durham's Department of Theology and Religion is hosting a postgrad conference themed around issues of interdisciplinarity. My cousin is currently an MA student at Durham (studying the portrayal of victims of sexual assault in Athenian law and literature) so I might well borrow a bit of her floor for this one!

Entitled, "Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Religion: How to Tie Knots that Will Hold," the conference will look at "what interdisciplinarity has entailed, what it means in current research, and what directions it may take in the future." It will be "of particular relevance and interest to postgraduates working on the cutting edge of theology and religious studies." Cutting edge? Why, that's me! Rev. Prof. Sarah Coakley, Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, will give a keynote entitled "Knots and Nots: Interdisciplinarity, Good and Bad"; there will be one workshop on "Collaborative Interdisciplinarity" by Prof. Douglas Davies, Durham University, and one by a representative of Intute: Arts and Humanities at Oxford, on the electronic dimensions of research; there will be papers presented on current interdisciplinary research by postgrad students; and an informal poster competition which aims to "hone skills in alternative presentation methods."



The call for postgrad research papers suggests some broad themes which "seem to generally benefit from, if not absolutely require, an interdisciplinary approach":


  • "Truth & Interpretation

  • "Community/Relationship/Conflict

  • "East/West/South(?)

  • "Church/Academy/World

  • "Ancient/Contemporary

  • "Tradition and the Future

  • "History and Eternity

  • "Ecology

  • "Death

  • "Identity."



My research questions (how is truth conceptualised in the UK emerging church milieu and what are the implications of such understandings of truth?) require me to float around in the sociology of religion, philosophy, theology, ethics, and politics; and I've blogged before about the difficulties I've had traversing a dialogue between sociology of religion and post-Enlightenment philosophical thought, particularly regarding sociology after the death of sociology and the problems of representational writing. In my Introduction I have a section where I muse on the possibility of understanding my thesis as an i/con, so I might work that up into a paper.

On the one hand, my thesis may be something of an icon: perhaps not in the sense of pointing outside of itself to an external reality that is the UK emerging church milieu (although this may be the case, we cannot know; such is the nature of undecidability), but in the sense in which Paul Ricoeur notes that the meaning of a text always points beyond itself – "not behind the text [to a reality beneath it] but in front of it" to a different mode of living, to a "possible world" of existing otherwise (Ricoeur 1976:87), of having been transformed.

Simultaneously, however, my research may be something of a con: due to the inherent difficulties in representing phenomenon after the critique of representationalism, it may not represent the social, philosophical, theological, or political realities of the milieu at all.

Further than this, the undecidable nature of my research’s location leads me to articulate it as an "i/con," existing on the Derridean slash of undecidability that is a recurring theme throughout the thesis. My depictions of the UK emerging church milieu should not be taken too seriously; after all, this thesis might just be a con.

But what does the troublesome interdisciplinary relationship between the sociology of religion and contemporary philosophy's critique of the ideology of representationalism mean for research? For starters, the criteria for the validity of a doctoral thesis are destabilized, not least the requirement that the research undertaken and presented be an accurate reflection of the subjects under study. What does "research as i/con" do to the research process? I might steal from the conference title to argue that, the "knots" do not hold.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

'depictions of the UK emerging church milieu should not be taken too seriously; after all, this thesis might just be a con'

Your somewhat reductionistic either/or position in your i/con idea sounds forced - hopefully your reseach project is adding another perspective or insight to the multidimensionalial pluriform variety of views/perspectives/insights that taken together add up to a picture of the ecm. Your research is a 'serchlight' which brings another perspective to illuminate the complex diverse phenomena of the ecm.

To posit your work as a 'con' or 'bringing complete transparency'
to me fails to take into account the variety of complementary yet at times opposing perspectives that can be brought to the ecm picture

I for one would feel a bit depressed if after giving years of study and effort to a research project felt it was of no value but just a con...was your time not wasted?

Rodney

Katharine Moody said...

In my Introduction and when (if) I write this particular concept up into a conference paper, I explain in more detail the notion of the slash in "i/con." It's not meant to be an either/or kind of situation. More like an undecidable space in which to exist. I'm working on it! As always, your comments are making me really think more about my concepts and how I articulate them, so I really appreciate that.

The "con" extreme in "i/con" is a construction of an understanding of postmodern thought which (mis)reads postmodern philosophy as relativistic and nihilistic, thus arguing that no-one purporting to be doing "postmodern sociology of religion" can be describing the phenomenon under study if you take their "postmodern"-ness to its logical limit. This is a reductionist understanding of postmodern philosophy which one gets from reading, for example, evangelical critics who haven't adequately engaged with the thought itself.

So my thoughts on my research being a "con" are more a pre-emptive strike at those people who are going to read it or anything I publish and say that it is self-refuting because of a performative contradiction contained in the postmodern philosophy I'm using. As many theorists of the postmodern have argued, however, performative contradictions (e.g. that to say "there is no objective view from nowhere" is to claim objective knowledge about reality) are more of a problem for the person making the charge than for the person being accused of it.

Did any of that make sense? When I've worked out how to better articulate myself I'll write again. In the meantime, keep prodding me!

Katharine Moody said...

Also, there are LOTS of ironies in doing "postmodern sociology of religion," particular when it HAS to be presented in the format of a doctoral thesis. There are lots of requirements and standards to meet, and hoops I have to jump through, in order for my thesis to be recognized as such and then (obviously) marked as such. I'm hoping to successfully point out some of the ironic ways in which doing "postmodern sociology" problematises not only classical sociology and the whole exercise of undertaking and presenting doctoral research.

Anonymous said...

In theology there is often an acknowledgement that we write fom our own biased perspective which brings a sense of provisionality to all conclusions/theories - how does a researcher in sociology deal with problem or can one really study objectively as a detached observer? Is this part of what you mean or am I barking up the wrong tree? (I wonder if you overestimate the influence of Caputo on different ideas of truth in the ECM scene due to your own fondness for his work?)

It could be that because I think Caputo represents a dead end as a resource for the ECM that I would marginalise any claim that he had influence!

I wonder if deconstruction is more positively viewed as an ongoing process of analysing texts/theories which are always by nature incomplete in order to find out if any perspective/idea has been omitted/marginalised and so demands our best skills, resources and knowledge of the subject matter if this is to be done properly.. the idea that you can 'take any meaning out of the text you want to' is a caricature of postmodernism and a lasy copout from doing the hard intellectual work of good analysis. Can your research not be seen as adding another valuable insight to the sum of knowledge about the ECM scene which is always growing but never complete?

I appreciate your desire to critique doctoral thesis work!

Rodney

Katharine Moody said...

"am I barking up the wrong tree?" No, you've got it. There are several problems reconciling the presuppositions of different academic disciplines and the criterion demanded by (classical) sociology is particularly problematic when its undertaken in conversation with some of the more contemporary philosophers with whom I'm engaging. But John Law's recent work on the notion of MESS in the social sciences has been pretty useful - particularly where he endeavours to show that the (social) sciences do not have to presuppose a single, unified reality. It's interesting stuff that'll be very handy in my Introduction.

I don't think I "overestimate the influence of Caputo on different ideas of truth in the ECM scene due to your own fondness for his work," although I can totally understand your worry that I might. As I've said, there are two (not necessarily exhaustive) strands which I am drawing out of my data, one of which is MUCH more comfortable with the Caputian stuff you worry about than the other is. I will be talking about BOTH of these strands in EQUAL measure in my thesis. I may or may not find myself personally more "in tune" with one strand than the other (as you may or may not) but I am very concerned NOT to marginalise either strand. One of the MAJOR ironies of my thesis is that I very much want to be able to accurately represent the UK emerging church milieu to my readers, whilst acknowledging the limitations of representational writing... oh, the headache!

And I totally agree that deconstruction can be "more positively viewed as an ongoing process of analysing texts/theories which are always by nature incomplete in order to find out if any perspective/idea has been omitted/marginalised and so demands our best skills, resources and knowledge of the subject matter if this is to be done properly." That's a very helpful way of describing it. But I don't think that anyone who takes deconstruction further than this is necessarily being negative... What would you say a "negative" understanding of deconstruction would be? Why do you see this (and/or Caputo) as a "dead end" for the emerging church?

A large part of my second chapter is a response to the misrepresentations of postmodern philosophy (by evangelical critics) which you mention when you said that "the idea that you can 'take any meaning out of the text you want to' is a caricature of postmodernism and a lasy copout from doing the hard intellectual work of good analysis."

Finally, you asked "Can your research not be seen as adding another valuable insight to the sum of knowledge about the ECM scene which is always growing but never complete?" and I would certainly hope so - but I think that it is ultimately out of my hands as to whether it constitutes a "valuable insight." Fingers crossed that it doesn't act as some kind of closure on the question of how truth is understood in the emerging church milieu. That would be a real failure.

Katharine Moody said...

Deadline November 15... Better get my skates on!

Anonymous said...

One week left!

As to caputo being a 'dead end' - a vast subject in itself.

best of luck with 15th deadline

Rodney

Anonymous said...

'But again ultimately with a structuralist background, there is no subject. So how do we talk about enacting or performing an Event when there is no subject? What choice is there in such a view? How do the structures ever change if we are constituted by them (as opposed to constituted by and also constituting,

A quote from a blog about Caputos weak theology with a burning question about the EVENT. If there is no subject 'the event' can be anything we want it to be in the name of religion as long as you live it out..for example

- a good and dedicated football supporter as some religious commentators now see football in secular society as having many religious rituals and features .....

If religion has no content it ends up being ones personal preference often shaped by the culture we grow up in - a reflection of ourselves. A strongly motivated left wing activist will reduce all of Christianity to a few gospel texts about caring for the poor...

Rodney - an attempt to answer your question of why caputo's theology is a dead end