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"Romantic Hybridity: Theoretical Crossings Then and Now"

Self-Organization and Romantic Crossings

Jon Klancher, Boston University

The following revised version of the NASSR paper incorporates a number of arguments omitted from the original to observe limits on time.

By now we have enough experience with interdisciplinary discourses of many kinds to wonder what is inherently "transgressive" about crossing academic disciplinary borders--and what depends on complex historical conjunctures or changing institutional contexts to let us decide if such crossings work transgressively or not. In this brief, speculative paper, I will comment on an emerging context of disciplinary crossings that may link Romantic scholarship to a widening range of fields. I begin by citing a transdisciplinary discourse still distant from the present terms of literary and Romantic studies. To signal that a part of this discourse is also embedded deeply in the historical object of those studies, I introduce it by way of Friedrich Schelling's belief that "because there is in our spirit an infinite striving to organize itself, so in the outer world must a general tendency to organization to reveal itself. . . .The world system is a kind of organization, which has formed itself from a common center." This language of a self-organizing nature and a correspondingly self-organized world system echoes again--sans "spirit" or "common center"--across late-20th-century disciplines in considerably more diverse and material forms. New meanings of "self-organization" today emanate out of the non-linear dynamic sciences, where observable cellular, meteorological, or cybernetic processes stimulate an increasingly cross-disciplinary rethinking of emergent orders in time. Broadly encompassed by culturally provocative (if often misleading) terms like "complexity" or "chaos," they have crossed with remarkable rapidity from evolutionary biology, cybernetics, and cosmology to economics, historical sociology, the cognitive sciences, popular books, and one form of literary theory (as "literary chaotics"). They also furnish metaphors and predictors for explicating the motion of markets and the flows of international capital, the emergence of "networks," or even the restructuring of academic life. These scientific languages have stimulated a cross-disciplinary discourse that travels by way of certain overdetermined words and ideas in something like the way "text" and "representation" worked at the interface of literary theory, history, and some social sciences for the two decades. The resulting interdisciplinary dynamics and effects are very different. Yet both bear on the question of disciplines and interdisciplinarity in rapidly changing institutional and economic contexts now. It seems thereby inadequate to continue speaking of trans-disciplinary conditions and projects today as if they only centered in one portion (between the humanities and social sciences) of the trimodal system of disciplines installed in the nineteenth century.

I cite the passage from Schelling partly to evoke a more historical reflection on the current language of self-organizing processes arising from the non-linear dynamic sciences. It is one reminder of how, between 1760 and 1840 in Britain and Europe, the discourse of "organization" became entwined in personal, physiological, chemical, political, literary, religious and institutional contexts that contributed to making it one of the key overdetermined, multidisciplinary terms of the age. To emphasize the linkage: Schelling's Lectures on the Method of Academic Studies, five years after the comment quoted above, proposed arguments pivotal for the instituting of discipline-organized modern knowledge in relation to the very different configurations of knowledge shaped within the early-modern Republic of Learning. At present, eighteenth and early nineteenth-century scholars are studying that succession of the formal means of structuring knowledge (from "republics" to "disciplines"). But a deeper reflection may be encouraged by the sciences of our own moment. Studies of organizing Romantic-age knowledge have yet to register what is diversely framed by Coleridge's 1795 apostrophe to "ye of plastic power, that interfused Roll through the grosser and material mass In organizing surge!" ["Religious Musings"], or by the politically ambiguous vital materialisms that preoccupied writers from Priestley, Schelling, Burke, Godwin, the Shelleys, and Coleridge, to Hazlitt, Carlile, William Lawrence, John Barclay, Lyell, and many others. Often mediated through natural philosophy as well as poetry, fiction, social theory, and political discourse, the discourse of "organization" also generated figures of "self-organization" that crossed among these domains of knowledge and persuasion, from emergent high-cultural institutions to the organizing acts of plebeian writers or agents who mobilized popular energies as purposeful agency (in what E. P. Thompson first called their "self-organization.") Rereading the differentials and dialectics of organization/ self-organization among these Romantic-age interlocutors would be interesting for its own sake, but it might also be one way of critically inflecting present questions about how local, (inter)disciplinary, and world-scale languages of complexity and self-organization can be thought, in a cross-disciplinary context, at the end of this century. Rethinking the orders of knowledge, at the turn of the 19th century or the approach of the 21st, tends to raise questions as well about what the various knowledges want to know--about the shape of what used to be called a "totality" of knowings and doings that remains (in spite of the discourse of the "global") a determinate absence in our own ways of thought and criticism.

I raise the prospect of an historicizing reception of these newer sciences of emergence partly in response to their somewhat predictable absorption by recent literary theory. Under the rubric of a "literary chaotics," complexity sciences are received as mirroring and thereby confirming the volatile textuality of postmodern or postructuralist paradigms, though without a corresponding historical reflection. This critical program (cf. N. Katherine Hayles, "Introduction" to Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science [1991]) has its own fascinations. But it also makes for a curious meeting between what David Simpson has called the disciplinary import-export trade of "the rule of literature" and an increasingly influential rule of "complexity." When extended across disciplines, the complexity sciences often achieve their effect by provoking an underlying discourse of the complex as the disciplinary motor in the receiving body of knowledge. For literary theory, this means a recent chapter of its disciplinary history (the "chaotics" of textuality or intertextuality). But it also echoes the earlier formalisms that invoked the "complex" as means of resisting what we now call "closure." What counts as closure (like "complexity" itself) depends on where and when you invoke or refute it. [One could even say that "closure/complexity" corresponds in our immediate critical discourse to terms like "unidisciplinary/multidisciplinary".] More generally, the "literary chaotics" program effectively limits--by familiarizing through its own disciplinary history--the theoretical implications these sciences of emergence can potentially have.

By reputation, the new complexity sciences challenge a classical scientific trust in transparent orders and reversible chronology. Yet the effects of "complexity" as grasped within a particular science can function less to subvert an older scientific confidence than to assure that order remains immanent in profusions of chaotic informational or evidentiary overload. I borrow Richard Lewontin's example of how the new scientific languages are mediating a disciplinary crisis in evolutionary biology. Historical biology's accumulation of unique, multitudinous exceptions to the law-giving axioms of experimental method has strengthened its critique of traditional biology's developmental models of organisms. (A current product of such models is the Human Genome Project's mapping of individual human futures.) In the midst of this intramural disciplinary ferment, what Lewontin calls "the three Cs" (of complexity, chaos, and catastrophism) arrive in rescue. Their processual claim is that out of the current profusion of unique and disturbing particulars, a clarifying order of simplifying rules will eventually emerge (in our mundane non-reversible time) to restore a properly scientific authority to this discipline.

Among their contradictory effects as these discourses cross disciplinary lines or reconfigure discipline problems at home, perhaps the widest sphere of reception is economic. Intensifying traffic between the sciences and the market has been (at least in part) guided by complexity theories that offer new descriptions and predictive devices for a chaotically expansive "self-organizing" global economy. One effect of this traffic can be glimpsed in the manuals of "corporate culture" recently reviewed by Social Text and collected for intensive study by Alan Liu for The Voice of the Shuttle. Reminding us that we academic transgressors of disciplines are not alone in the universe, such manuals speak of new corporate "multidisciplinary function teams" or of what Bob Willard of IBM Canada calls the innovative corporate strategy of "boundary-busting" that coincides with downsizing and global economic restructuring. One corporate futurist promises, "Soon there will be no boundaries. . . . " What might seem appealing about this discourse (which presents itself in such manuals as "against hierarchy") can pale in light of its genealogy in past "bustings" of such boundaries as those produced by union traditions that originated historically in popular and intellectual self-activity. What's meant by this language differs in essence from what literary and cultural studies have intended by their focus on permeating, crossing, reconstructing, or redrawing the boundaries that both link and separate peoples, genders, cultures, or kinds of organized knowledge. Yet how it differs from the latter has to be clarified at a time when tropes of self-organization, now partly sanctioned by the new sciences of emergence, increasingly define the way powerful economic and institutional processes manifest themselves in the age of what John Urry has called (in a different vocabulary) "disorganized capitalism." The same corporate discourse bears directly on the academic job crisis that has the most immediate impact on how either the disciplines or interdisciplinary studies can continue to exist as institutions in any form.

By contrast to such receptions of the sciences of emergence, I want to cite more interesting and productive theoretical consequences for other disciplines when such sciences are grasped in their historically-resonant implications for human and collective self-directing motions in highly unstable contexts of change. The relevant context is the ferment among disciplines. To confront the crisis of university institutions as destabilized foundations for producing knowledge, the newly-published report of the Gulbenkian Commission outlines a social reading of "emergence" that alters the terms of Lyotard's rethinking of the disciplines as language games a generation ago. This newer report on knowledge argues a rationale for "opening the social sciences" that invokes sciences of complexity and self-organization against the disciplinary ethos of social sciences founded in the nineteenth century. Its revision of disciplinary questions also links the self-organizing of multicultural education and programs of cultural studies to wider, cross-cultural attempts "to amplify the organization of intellectual activity" in a purposive reshaping of divisions of intellectual labor (using historical arguments too lengthy to summarize here). The joint authorship of this report (by Immanuel Wallerstein, Ilya Prigogine, Evelyn Fox Keller, Calestous Juma, Dominique Lecourt, Kinhide Mushakoji and others) links bodies of work with their various disciplinary-critiques in a way that quite literally performs the transnational and sciences-to-humanities crossings it more explicitly argues on a widening global scale. As it outlines practical strategies for making interdisciplinary work a central activity of the human sciences, the report also proposes a complex view of the traditional disciplines--declining to abandon them to those who persist in the abstract, parochial universalism once sufficient to justify them. The ensuing agenda for a "contingent universalism" contrasts implicitly with Lyotard's renouncing of potential as well as classical universals. Wallerstein's commission names a self-organizing project beyond the language games, both interdisciplinary and in the name of reconceived disciplines, toward grasping future (and now quite uncertain) means of productive knowledge and teaching.

I take this kind of report to implicate Romantic studies, with their own historical focus on another age of "organizational dispersal," in the way it spurs a rethinking of the wider map of disciplinary histories and present relations (among the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences) within which we imagine and situate our work. The Gulbenkian Report is also one among several investigations underway that recognize no simple choice to make between disciplines and the interdisciplinary, despite a lingering rhetoric of "aggressive anti-disciplinarity" voiced in some quarters of cultural criticism. In a similar vein, some important recent work in eighteenth-century studies has played the tapes of disciplinary time backward to discover the pre-disciplinary composites and crossings that eighteenth and early-nineteenth discourses contrived. Under new pressures, the older disciplines formed from these heterogeneous historical materials are revealing such crossings and composites again. Hence they speak to the intense connectivity that enables us to make certain (not just any) cross-disciplinary linkages and circuits now. I foreshorten a longer argument with a final point. If the current fields, in the words of an MLA proposal, are being "internally reconfigured to incorporate, merge, or draw on other disciplines," the result will not be what one eighteenth-century cultural historian has surmised: a de-differentiated "pool of cultural studies" or other knowledges. It will arguably be a more highly differentiated and networked array of fields. Networking is not simply the opposite of differentiating but one of its historical and practical consequences. In an intriguing study of "the rise of the network society," Manuel Castells borrows clarifying optics from Weber, Marx, and Innis to read network-society as both a sphere of diversely rich cultural inclusion and connection--with historically unique potentials for participation and access--as well as an emerging structure that articulates familiar, deep, less-tractable antagonisms. What such an analysis implies for knowledge may be that, as interdisciplinarity becomes the framing condition that obtains widely from colleges to corporations, the question is less whether it is transhistorically "transgressive" than how it should give instruction, pleasure, and critical purchase on the new conditions of diversely networked societies.


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Published @ RC

November 1996