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Joe Moran

Routledge (New Critical Idiom Series), 2002
£10.99; Paperback ISBN: 0-415-25132-X  


Reviewed by Craig Hamilton



The appearance of Interdisciplinarity is rather timely given how fashionable the term has become. However, it remains as hard a term as ever to define. For Joe Moran, interdisciplinarity is “any form of dialogue or interaction between two or more disciplines” [16], but this is too vague. Publications that successfully draw together insights from different disciplines would represent a useful dialogue, while fruitless disagreements that result in bitter silence would represent a useless interaction. But to call each one a form of interdisciplinarity, as Moran might, entails thinking of interdisciplinary research as simultaneously useful and useless. This would be strange. If interdisciplinarity is attractive today, it is precisely because more often than not it proves to be fruitful rather than useless.

Moran’s introduction, which contains a history of the formation of the disciplines, especially in the human sciences, reveals that the going has always been rather rough. While Andrew Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines (Chicago, 2001) offers a history of the disciplines that is rather different from Moran’s, there is a clear divide between those who feel we have never been interdisciplinary and those who feel we have always been interdisciplinary. Just as Bruno Latour once claimed that “we have never been modern,” so too would the sceptic in English Studies claim “we have never been disciplinary.” But if interdisciplinarity seems problematic, this is because disciplinarity is even more so. As Moran fully understands, nobody can offer a definition of English Studies without drawing immediate criticism from one corner of the field or another. There is some clarity, however, in Moran’s discussion as to why philosophy is treated as first-among-equals by other disciplines on campus. Also insightful is his first chapter on “Interdisciplinary English,” where the usual suspects—Matthew Arnold, Arthur Quiller-Couch, I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, René Wellek, Austin Warren, Stanley Fish, and Gerald Graff—all make an appearance, either in the text itself or in the references. The picture Moran paints of Leavis is especially refreshing since it has become commonplace to see him simply as a curmudgeon who should no longer be taken seriously. Less fortunate is Moran’s portrayal of English in American universities. His claim that “composition did not seriously interfere” [42] with the teaching of literature betrays a condescending tone that will bother many readers in the US who know that without rhetoric and composition American departments of English could hardly justify their existence. Teaching students how to write is the most lucrative venture of English departments in the US, and without that business the expense of studying and teaching literature would not be met. On this view, then, one can argue that it is literature and not rhetoric that interferes with the business of the English department, but that is another argument altogether.

That said, things improve with Moran’s second chapter, which covers the rise of cultural studies. The work of Raymond Williams is given fair treatment here, but Moran deals mostly with Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall and their work at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. This is exactly what one would expect in a chapter on sociology and literature, and Moran does not disappoint despite the predictability of the story he tells here. The discussion at chapter’s end is also rather poignant. Scepticism of English Studies fuelled the creation of Cultural Studies, and yet many now view Cultural Studies with an equally sceptical eye. But scepticism and interdisciplinarity go hand in hand it seems, especially when interdisciplinary research has to be evaluated.

Fortunately, Moran’s next chapter is more positive. Here we find reference to the discoveries made over the last century as English Studies joined forces with linguistics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, feminism, and gender studies. The result was namely “Theory” (of one, or another, School of Thought). While Theory may have once been the lingua franca of the human sciences, this no longer seems to be the case today for scholars disillusioned with the ability of Theory to create a more just world. In his fourth chapter, Moran continues to discuss Theory by reviewing the keys ideas of Adorno, Foucault, and Althusser, among others. The most valuable part of this chapter is that it spells out the differences between Cultural Materialism in the UK and New Historicism in the US.  What seems to divide the practitioners? Their political commitments, according to Moran. While British Cultural Materialists may openly engage in political activism under the guise of scholarship, American New Historicists seem to do this to a lesser extent. In other words, politics by other means is what Cultural Materialism seems to amount to in the UK. Some New Historicists might object to Moran’s portrayal of them as more timid than their British counterparts, of course, but for Moran this is the main distinction between the two schools.

Throughout this book, interdisciplinarity is primarily thought of as a way of framing literary studies in general, and English Studies in particular, in relation to other humanities disciplines. This book is thus aimed primarily at readers from literature departments. In his final chapter, however, Moran widens his focus by noting that the rise of Science Studies could suggest why interdisciplinarity remains valuable. Despite interdisciplinarity’s inherent problems, it nevertheless remains a promising enterprise at the end of the day. This, in a nutshell, is Moran’s main argument. Readers who agree with Moran will find his book to be very useful. Others, however, might have their doubts. For example, cognitive science is only mentioned very briefly at the end of the book, even though it is arguably the best example of interdisciplinarity that has taken shape on many campuses in many countries since the 1970s. What is more, interdisciplinarity of this sort continues today with the rise of cognitive approaches to the study of language and literature. But despite overlooking facts like these, Moran’s short book will give readers from English departments plenty to think about. At the very least, it may make us reconsider our views of interdisciplinarity.



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