Roundtable on Interdisciplinarity

By McCance, Dawne | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2002 | Go to article overview

Roundtable on Interdisciplinarity


McCance, Dawne, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The following roundtable discussion took place at the University of Queensland, Australia, on 12 June 2001, as the concluding session of the No Sense of Discipline conference. The discussion brought together Mosaic editor Dawne McCance (DM) with conference plenary speakers Sander Gilman (SG), Linda Hutcheon (LH), Michael Hutcheon (MH), and Helen Tiffin (HT). Mosaic is pleased to publish the roundtable here.

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DM To begin this last session of what has been a most significant conference, let me say that I'm struck by the way each of the plenary sessions--Sander Gilman's, Linda and Michael Hutcheon's, and Helen Tiffin's--opened the question of interdisciplinarity by way of a discussion of disease. Sander, you spoke about Kafka's tumour; Linda and Michael discussed syphilis and cholera as operatic diseases; and Helen talked about mad-cow and foot-and-mouth disease. Why the focus on disease in a conference on interdisciplinarity? What's going on?

SG Well, you may have noticed that all of us are older than twenty-five. [laughter]

HT Some not much!

SG Some not much, some not much, some barely over twenty-five. Yet age does play a role in the questions we ask (as do many other factors).

I think one of the major questions that culture and especially literary culture has always addressed is the mutability of the body and the inevitability of death. Whether you're looking at Holy Scripture or at Irving's film Trainspotting, it seems to me that this is a problem at the centre of culture. This has certainly been true in literary culture since the Greeks. But the interesting thing is, and it's primarily a discovery of the last 100 years, that medicine itself is part of that same culture, as is literature. William Osler's notion that medicine is in point of fact an art rather than a science codified this. In my own work I was forced to see a "natural" connection between literature and medicine even though literature seemed to be "constructed" as narrative and medicine was postulated as inherently different, as natural. This was the C.P. Snow problem of the two worlds, right? And yet, it turns out that there was no problem. There are not two worlds; there is one world and you can use literature to access questions that physicians as a discipline access and vice versa. The distinction between the constructed and the natural is specious, because each of the cultural spheres is both. Both address the basic question of the nature of life and death, using different means and different approaches--yet both use language to narrate and communicate.

DM Maybe that's what you were doing too, Helen, bringing both cultural fields together, in your discussion of the human and the animal spheres, two spheres that our culture does not like to bring together.

HT Yes, and I think they are regarded as probably less amenable to being brought together than medicine or disease and, say, literature; or than disease and opera. I think the difficulty in the humanities of dealing with animals is that human subjectivity itself has been constructed against an animal "other," and the real value of human achievement has been seen as precisely what separates it from the animal. So in discussing the animal, you are actually bringing into the humanities something regarded as outside the human (and therefore humanities studies), even though "the animal" is precisely that which constitutes our much-vaunted "special" qualities. The animal is what we are not. Or what we like to think we are not. We are always shifting ground as to what these qualities are. We've claimed that they don't have speech, for instance; well, then it turns out, yes they do, but it just depends how you define speech. We've claimed that they don't have consciousness; well, yes they do. We've claimed that they don't have rights; well, they don't have rights only because we don't allow them the rights. …

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