Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Discipline of Abandonment: Emersonian Properties of Transdisciplinarity & the Nature of Method

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Discipline of Abandonment: Emersonian Properties of Transdisciplinarity & the Nature of Method

Article excerpt

This essay investigates a possible relation between primarily European, twenty-first century, science-based Transdisciplinarity and nineteenth century, humanities-based American Transcendentalism through a study of a key term in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Abandonment. The word commonly carries negative connotations: deserting someone or forsaking something, behaving with frightful recklessness, leaving home and hope behind. In many of Emerson's essays, however, transcendental abandonment is also a way of going home, the intellectual affirmation of something bigger (to which we always belong) through the negation of something smaller (that which we mistake for our "natural" mode of thinking and being). Comparing Emersonian Transcendentalism with contemporary Transdisciplinarity is not just an academic exercise, not just for amusement nor for the satisfaction of a curiosity, but belongs to a search for responsible approaches to ecological, social, intellectual, and spiritual urgencies. The points of connection extend Transdisciplinarity beyond the sciences and lead to reconsidering the extent to which elements of historical Transcendentalism might inform present thinking beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries to address real problems.

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For the last decade or so I have been exploring the meaning of rivers, first through a thematic survey of literary works that feature waterways of the United States and most recently in an investigation of the strange waters of the Los Angeles River. At least to myself but occasionally aloud, I have called this area of study "Textual Potamology," which involves using texts to think about rivers, using rivers to think about texts, and using this dual usage to enquire into the nature of meaning. "Potamology" is a Greek-rooted word that usually refers to the scientific study of rivers. When combined with "textual," the result suggests a course of study in which one asks questions about "nature" and watersheds, but also asks questions of "culture" and interpretation.

The origins of this work may be found both in my training as a literary scholar (with a focus on the writings of Emerson and Thoreau) and in courses I teach in Environmental Studies, and for the longest time that connection suggested to me that I was pursing something of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of rivers. Prompted by a recent invitation to speak from "whatever you take to be your disciplinary perspective," I have begun to suspect that Textual Potamology bears more of a resemblance to Transdisciplinarity--a mode of scholarly inquiry that "admits and confronts complexity," "challenges knowledge fragmentation," and is characterized by "its hybrid nature, non-linearity, and reflexivity, transcending any academic disciplinary structure" (Lawrence 113). Such qualities hint at a possible relation between primarily European, twenty-first century, science-based Transdisciplinarity and nineteenth century, humanities-based American Transcendentalism, and in the present essay I explore what Textual Potamology might owe to the latter, as well as how it might participate in the former.

To begin, a word--or more precisely, a root word--regarding the proposed relation between two apparently disparate approaches to knowledge from periods separated by centuries. The "trans" of American Transcendentalism has less to do with a rising above than with a thinking across, beyond, behind customary practices, and the same may be said of Transdisciplinarity. Writing in the Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering and Science, Roderick J. Lawrence discusses the "transgression" of "the boundaries defined by traditional disciplinary modes of inquiry," and adds that Transdisciplinarity "requires an ingredient that some have called transcendence" (114). While the shared "trans" is itself intriguingly suggestive of a potential connection, "transcendence," at least for me, raises the eyebrow higher. …

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