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New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 781-804

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Within the Veil of Interdisciplinary Knowledge?:
Jefferson, Du Bois, and the Negation of Politics

Russ Castronovo *


In a once revolutionary moment, interdisciplinarity seemed to possess liberatory potential. This moment might be reconstructed out of slogans and images from 1968. "Pluridisciplinarité et interdisciplinarité," proclaimed banners held by student marchers in Paris of that year. 1 The spirit of interdisciplinarity also appeared in the United States at this time in calls for Women's Studies, Black Studies, and Ethnic Studies. In the American republic of the 1790s conservatives feared that the destabilizing spirit of the French revolution would spread across the Atlantic, and almost two centuries after the fact French radicalism indeed emerged on college and university campuses, not as the terror of 1789, but as the social unrest of 1968. San Francisco State on Strike, a documentary film of the student movement that paralyzed the Bay Area campus for five months, suggests interdisciplinarity as radical consciousness. In the newsreel footage of protests that began in response to the university administration's failure to support Black Studies and ended with the creation of one of the first programs in Ethnic Studies, students and faculty voice their opposition to "discipline" in its several forms--in the form of police beating and corralling marchers, in the form of an academic curriculum that ignores the concerns of working-class and minority students, and in the form of a tracking system that as early as the third grade conditions segments of school populations for low-paying jobs and unemployment.

Interdisciplinarity in 1968 represented one manifestation of an insurgent awareness that perceptively, if somewhat loosely, linked academic discipline to social control. The Third World Liberation Front that evolved from the demonstrations at San Francisco State mobilized, among other things, an interdisciplinary perspective upon systemic connections between institutional racism, capitalist production, and the [End Page 781] social reproduction of knowledge. This critique of an educational apparatus that works in tandem with oppressive state power is performed in the documentary by an off-screen striking faculty member who, on being named "John Doe #28" in a temporary restraining order by two state officials, renames the officials "Eichmann #1" and "Eichmann #2." While the image of public education as fascist hinges on a dubious comparison to Nazi horrors, this hyperbolic allegation also advances a systemic analysis that pushes the limits of academic inquiry well beyond disciplinary limits. Overstepping boundaries between campus and community, higher education and political consciousness, and passive learning and activism, this educator participates in a transdisciplinary ethic of interrogation that questions the university's configuration of knowledge as apart from public interest and unrelated to social justice.

Notwithstanding its overinflated rhetoric, this denunciation of a disciplinary mindset is impatient of systems of civic decorum, law, and learning that normalize education. In this context, interdisciplinarity--as academic activism, commitment to Ethnic Studies, and use of systemic analysis--constitutes a radical political project. Against this context, disciplinarity--as judicial apparatus, administrative management, and traditional curricula--depoliticizes knowledge by derailing the connective linkages between epistemological boundaries and social hierarchies. In the standoff over the politicization of knowledge, interdisciplinarity has clearly emerged as the winner of 1968, its once-questionable status now regularized in popular interdisciplinary programs like American Studies. 2 More than three decades after the heyday of campus protests, interdisciplinarity seems the last remnant of a liberatory agenda that has not been recycled as kitsch or as a feel-good moment for a television miniseries like The '60s. Many commentators view this supposedly enduring radicalism with apprehension. John Searle, for instance, laments that the crusade against disciplinarity has overrun literature departments and the Modern Language Association to the point where professors talk about politics instead of poems. 3 Though interdisciplinarity is not as inherently degraded for Richard Levin as it is for Searle, Levin still writes with anxiety about a faddish academic world where "genuine interdisciplinarity" has been replaced by a degraded incarnation of "interdisciplinarity [that] is now seen as a radical project." 4 Writing...


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