Friday, August 22, 2008

Monument, metaphors, interdisciplinary studies

Just down the hill from our house in Woodland Hills stands this fine piece of installation art. Or is it garden art? Or, as I've wondered more than once, is it a monument to interdisciplinary studies gone horribly wrong?

Well adorned with live and artificial flowers, guarded by a watchful plastic pig, fronted by plush rabbits and the proverbial pink flamingo, announcing that it's time to go back to school, the rusty green pickup stands (slumps) as a creative advertisement for the Hiatt Construction Company.

So far so good.

But as a monument for interdisciplinary work, it can only serve as a warning. 

Say you're working on a problem, like the question of how language both enables and disables us (the problem Alex Caldiero and I will address with a group of humanities and integrated studies and communications students this fall). If you think the problem additively (which is the methodology of the pigflamingoflowerrabbittruck) you'll end up with a hodgepodge, unfocused and superficial and unsatisfying. We're nervous about this and are working hard to use the tools we jointly have to get at the basic problem without slipping away toward yard art. Linguistics and poetry, literary criticism and history, anthropology and religious studies will all play parts in our investigations, and if we use the tools of these disciplines skillfully, we'll know a lot more about how we speak language and how it speaks us than we did when we started.

If the piggydodge is the anti-image, perhaps these photos of sunflowers are better indications of how good interdisciplinary work proceeds. Different views, different focal lengths, different sunflowers -- and the same question: sunflowers and light?

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