Emergent Practice for Urgent Times

Zsuzsanna Ihar and Hayley Singer reflect on the recent Multispecies Justice workshop series, Interdisciplinarity in a More-Than-Human World.

Photo by Dorothea OLDANI on Unsplash.

It was two, maybe three years ago when interdisciplinarity was being sold, heavily, on billboards in the streets and laneways of the University of Melbourne campus. The visuals registered as a geo-engineered creationist project. A partial nod to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam hung as a printed fresco over the main entrance of the campus. In this vision the two near-touching beings – rehashed figures of God and Adam – were an AI and a grain of rice. A white, sleek, ageless robot reaches out to spark life from its own finger into a sleek, whitened, grain of rice. Product meets product. It made one wonder: what if the slight gap, between those two beings, was the very space left over for process. Would the white, paternal hand of some god-figure always guide interdisciplinary practices? What did it mean that the university was selling a techno-creationist vision in which god makes man in his image, who makes robot in his image, who makes rice in his image? And is it the purpose of inter-disciplinary practices to replicate the industrial temporalities and processes that result when robotics and agriculture collide?

If another interdisciplinarity exists, perhaps it is the sort which refuses inheritance from a sole progenitor, reliant on the idea of commodity passing from one owner to another, one discipline to another. In this version, knowledge doesn’t originate from a singular source of expertise and genius, but arises out of a wild clustering of hands, creators, and beings. It entails resisting the very privatisation of thought that we’ve all been accustomed to, achieved through structures and hierarchies of ownership, as well as authorship. Instead of corporate patenting, single-authored papers, and the quiet mumble of acknowledgement that happens when non-institutional thinkers and histories become citations (or footnotes), it would steer us towards a thinking -, making-, writing-, worlding-in-common.

“During the workshop, there wasn’t any mention of an ideal ‘marriage’ of disciplines, resulting in a unified concept or the birthing of a grand creation […] there was a sense that each speaker accepted that working together was about the attempt entailed in approaching a mass of facts, the daunting incompleteness of it all.”

The Multispecies Justice Group’s ‘Interdisciplinarity in More-than-Human Worlds’ workshop introduced researchers doing just this kind of worlding. A collaborative worlding that hotwires (via La Paperson)1 the conservative and disciplinary university as social scientists collaborate with engineers, who collaborate with botanists, who collaborate with policy makers. Such work offers up a messy tangle of channels between people and ideas — imperfect and ad hoc, yet also full of potential spark. Importantly, as institutions forge increasingly questionable points of contact, inviting weapon manufacturers and border security agencies into the interdisciplinary fold, this sort of an approach may even allow for moments of sabotage, short-circuiting, and necessary re-configuration.

During the workshop, there wasn’t any mention of an ideal ‘marriage’ of disciplines, resulting in a unified concept or the birthing of a grand creation. The bind was not a contractual obligation nor was it a response to perceived deficiency. Interdisciplinarity wasn’t pathologised an attachment issue born out of the relentless attacks directed at the humanities for not being empirical enough, vital enough, or at the sciences for lacking style and self-reflection. It was a promise between scholars to practice a realistic openness to one another — sharing the binding stuff of “trust, time, and tea” in the words of panellist Margaret Barbour. Like the “intellectual pemican” of Darwin’s work which led anthropologist Thomas Henry Huxley to occupy “the humble office of an interpreter”2, there was a sense that each speaker accepted that working together was about the attempt entailed in approaching a mass of facts, the daunting incompleteness of it all. The logic of the solid outcome and presupposed value, usually demanded by grant applications and institutional paperwork, fell into the shadows.

The stories of feeling acutely out-of-place, relying on a vocabulary still provisional and prone to misinterpretation, brought out the centrality of endurance when it comes to communal scholarship. Arising from the French endurer, meaning ‘to make hard’, it spoke to the added strain of interdisciplinarity, yet it is also the characteristic which makes these relationships last — enduring in spite of the discomfort, insecurity, vulnerability and occasional moments of hesitation. In doing this, the workshop offered a field-guide to doing academia differently in a period where institutional precarity (due to mass casualisation, job-cuts, and the drying up of funding pools) has become increasingly wielded to both intensify the pace of scholarly labour, and to advance the return of conservative practices and values. Despite the urgency, it inspired a desire to see what it would be like to submit to questions that one has no mastery over, no answer to as of yet, questions not even considered.

“the fact that ‘doing’ interdisciplinarity as humans starts with being attentive to the techniques and practices already present in the more-than-human world.”

While crossing faculty boundaries is all well and good, perhaps it was in the crossing of species boundaries where the potential of interdisciplinarity shimmered the most. The recognition of more-than-human as co-thinkers capable of describing and developing concepts of their own, rather than merely subjects or objects of research. A striking example of this was Dalia and Margaret’s story of measuring the rings on a stump to gleam the personal history of a tree, with knowledge stored as circular patterns. Each ring would store climate, lore, chemical composition, and memory — an implicit demand to be read from the perspective of the many. In the dead-end of the tree, authorship emerged from the sharp cuts left by lightning strikes, grooves of termites, darkened blots of coal dust — a miscellaneous arboreal text.

This hints at the fact that ‘doing’ interdisciplinarity as humans starts with being attentive to the techniques and practices already present in the more-than-human world. Recognising nature as already demonstrative of, and apt in, an array of experimental methods. Like Marilyn Strathern drawing upon the dragonfly in order to describe her own interdisciplinarity; skimming across biomedicine, management and the law as if water.3 Or Joseph Beuys’ vision of a university more akin to a beehive, a structure that survives as a result of cooperation between vastly different workers.4 Maybe what the more-than-human gives us is a type of university, where knowledge is communal, joyous, and full of desire. The provocation posed by these workshops leads us to this: take what you need from the ivory tower but attend to the instruction of dragonflies.

At the end of the two-day event, Arian Wallach shared a story with us. It was about realising that none of her degrees had actually allowed her to ask fundamental questions, properly. Like: what am I doing and why? A Masters does not a master make. She was talking about falling into an abyss of not-knowing. It brings back to the digital fresco from all those years ago, and now, the picture of Wallach walking around in her abyss — which is nothing like the abyme of repetition and replication. It is constituted by introductions, sprained ankles, life happenings, cafe meetings, new mentors, informal conversations that shimmer and burst, that sound like stealthy, outlawed, unofficiated and unfunded leaps into diverse knowledge worlds. A ‘chaotic place of unknowing’ where it is okay not to know. And we realise this (this!), Arian’s story, is the stuff of amateurs. Not those who enjoy a taste of, but do not seriously practice their craft, but amateurs from the French, amare, to love. Not just researchers but practitioners, and not just practitioners but ones who love to practice.

We’d like to thank the Multispecies Justice Group and the SEI for organising the workshop and inviting a wonderful cast of speakers. This piece owes its spark and shimmer to Jen Dollin.

1. La Paperson (2017) A third university is possible. University of Minnesota Press.
2. Strathern, M. (2006) A community of critics? Thoughts on new knowledge. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute12(1), p.197.
3. Strathern, M. (2005) ‘Anthropology and Interdisciplinarity’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 4(2), p. 126 doi: 10.1177/1474022205051961.
4. Adams, D (1992) ‘Joseph Beuys: Pioneer of a Radical Ecology’, Art Journal 51(2), p.30

Zsuzsanna Ihar works on a range of biological allies, enemies, companions, and strays, incorporated into contemporary nation making projects. In her research, she is particularly interested in how nonhumans become assets and forms of speculative investment, as well as the ties between extractive and environmental technologies. She is currently finishing her dissertation, Crude Nature: The Emergence of a Post-Extractive Ecosystem, at the University of Sydney, and working on a side project that traces the use of metaphorical language in the Social Sciences.

Hayley Singer’s research and writing practice move across the fields of creative writing, critical ecological feminisms and feminist animal studies. Her essays have appeared in The MonthlyArt + Australia, the Animal Studies Journal and she has been the ecologies columnist for the quarterly attack journal, The Lifted Brow. She is currently completing her first full-length work, The Fleischgeist: a haunting.