November 01, 2009

Discussion of 'The Rainbow Bridge'

Discussion of the keynote lecture "'The Rainbow Bridge’: Reflections on Interdisciplinarity in the Cybernetic Age" -

Wendy J. Turner (19 October 2009):

I’m not sure I’m ready to comment. That was quite a paper. I appreciate the connections between various elements, especially between fascism and modernity and how that is being melted down into more than just a discussion of right and might. I will have to look for the works you mentioned (your own). As a medievalist, but having enjoyed intellectual history as a student, I have been cut off from much of this discussion for a while. Thank you for a great talk.

Roger Griffin (19 October 2009):

Dear Wendy

Glad something came across despite the painful process of listening to a paper being read with a tired voice!!! I hope my generalizations about the Renaissance being made up of both splitters and lumpers made sense to a real historian and that they might even have a resonance with the Middle Ages as well.
Thanks for going to the trouble to comment: much appreciated. Have you written anything I should know about?

Roger Griffin

Wendy J. Turner (19 October 2009):


I am giving a paper in this conference and, I believe, there will be biographies of each of us. I have several major works in production that will come out in the next year, and a few chapters already out on the mentally disabled in medieval England as well as a piece on the regulation and licensing of alchemists under Henry VI. I would love to hear what you think of my paper in the Compass conference.

On the topic of splitters and lumpers — I think both can be appropriate depending on what one wishes to learn. I find that if I need to do number crunching of data — say for statistically analysing the use (and abuse) of terminology for the mentally incapacitated in a given time period — I would have to say I’m a splitter. At the same time, when I give that data in a conference panel or roundtable discussion with other disciplines represented — I learn and share as a lumper. In other words, the act of sharing information with scholars in literature reveals that I may have (and this is a true story) the right information for administration of the law in England, but not the correct terminology or meanings for medieval medicine, or the Church, or literature. By coming together, we can see that each of us only holds part of the picture, and that by analyzing the data together, a much more complete picture of how the mentally ill and impaired were categorized emerges.


Roger Griffin (19 October 2009):

I will indeed read your paper: what you say about your relationship to academics in contiguous fields of inquiry fits my model well. But I also was referring to the fact that the intellectual world of the Christian Middle Ages also hosted splitters (neo-scholastics) and lumpers (experimental thinkers open to Islamic metaphysics, for example).

Wendy J. Turner (19 October 2009):

That reflection was not lost on me. I think you’re right.

That may actually explain why the terminology I was discussing earlier varies so widely. Those wanting to define people as good or bad, saw those with mental illness as possessed or ‘cleansed’ by God or devils; they wanted a simple ordered world (I’m thinking geometric forms and the ‘ordered’ universe). Those engaging in a wider mentalite’ were aware of finer distinctions between illness and potential possession as well as gradations (which I see in law and administration) of impairment, memory loss, and extreme mental confusion accompanied by physical action. Many late medieval physicians were informed by Islamic medical authorities and had a broader view of what mental conditions could be and how they might be treated.


Stefan Mueller (19 October 2009):

Dear Roger,
thank your for your interesting and comprehensive introduction to the conference. Two or maybe three thinks are in my mind (sorry for my English).
First, in my field of research, contemporary history of labour (in particular trade unions ) I face a vast quantity of contemporary political, economic and sociological literature, and data, perhaps incomparable to medievalists. These I have to use as social description of reality, e.g. opinion surveys, statistics and so on, and I have to know the theoretical discourse on this topics and handling this contemporary research as an intepretation embedded in that time. Though, interdisciplinarity is nessecary unlike we want to go back to the narratives of kings, leaders or the mere political history of states (Ranke) etc.
Second, I don’t know what is the original methode of historiography. Of course, there are a lot of instruments (and so called ancilarry science) but acutally no “own” methode.
Third, Your arguments on modernity of fascist movements sounds interesting to me. But what I’m missing are the protagonists (I don’t know your work but will I have look). The historical German fascist movement contained, among other, of para-troopers that were left behind after First World War, of old anti-Semites, or of young men without any perspective. I would agree that a huge output o Marxist theory on this topic is boring, or better: deformes reality more than explaines it. Very unseful for me was the concept of downgrading (don’t know if this is the English term). Consider this concept, the fascist movements were (of course not only) composed of people downgraded, and they acted against a very special output of modernity, the liberal republic (that was the result of the monarchy’s defeat) . What do You think?
Best regards, Stefan Mueller

Roger Griffin (20 October 2009):

Dear Stefan

Obviously deliberate interdisciplinarity is an approach to be adopted to some aspects of history (like explaining the broader ideological and cultural context of the rise of working class movements that apply the principles of ‘human rights’ to working class men and the complex relationship between individual ideologues/leaders and events which push individual movements into revolutionary or reformist paths. Some specialist areas require minimal interdisciplinarity while others involve lots.

Historiography has a complex history and even for the Greeks and Romans there were different methodologies/core myths/moral purposes behind writing history.

The origins/causes of Nazism are extremely complex as are its sociological make-up: all I could allude to in the keynote was the fact that there is lot to be gained from seeing Nazism as an attempt to create an alternative modernity which exerted in the exceptional circumstances of Weimar after 1929 a powerful attraction on a wide variety of individuals who were for one reason or another deeply dissatisfied with the prevailing modern world they were experiencing.

I can send more stuff if wanted (

All the best in your own historiographical inquiries and thanks for participating

Eileen Joy (19 October 2009):

Dear Roger:

thanks very much for your comprehensive talk. I myself am always intrigued by those scholar-researchers who are extremely idiosyncratic and who often help to create new paradigms through their visionary, iconoclastic thinking, and I was further intrigued by the description of these thinkers in your talk as operating from “passion,” as opposed to, say, more bloodless, supposedly more “rational” forms of thinking–although I think it would also be useful here to think about work that been going on for a while now in cognitive science and cognitive philosophy [the work of Antonio Damasio, including "Descartes' Error" and "Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain," and also George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's "Philosophy in the Flesh"] that breaks down some of the long-cemented oppositions between “feeling” and “thinking,” “rationality” and “emotion,” etc. that have for a long while now structured Western philosophical thought. It may be that there is no such thing as “reason” that is not, in some sense, both embodied [hence highly individualistic and even situational in relation to that individual's embodiment/placement in the world] and also emotionally contoured.

I was also very interested to hear some of your insights into the relations between fascism and modernity. I am not a scholar of fascism, but some of my research involves work on the Holocaust [in relation to matters of how traumatic historical memory is represented/mediated in art], and I have thought myself for a long while now that the very things that, historically, we have associated with modern “progress” were also hallmarks of the Final Solution [in other words, it was not regressive or “medieval,” as some aver, but highly modern, while at the same time, of course it’s “purgative,” as you point out, and therefore also attempts to start historical time over, as it were–similar to the Taliban smashing ancient Buddhist statues or the Khmer Rouge emptying cities of its clerks and doctors and professors and modernist laborers in order to start a new agrarian society.

Thanks again for your talk.

Best, Eileen

Roger Griffin (20 October 2009):

Dear Eileen

Of course you are right: the dichotomy between cold reason and hot passion is a false one, as is dispelled in every genuine creative, committed individual I know of whether in science (Madame Curie/Einstein), humanistic philosophy (Voltaire, Nietzsche), or politics (Thomas More/Ghandi). Brecht’s use of the word Vernunft (reason) embraces a passionate commitment to socio-political change to remove tyrannies and injustices he bitterly resented. So thanks for bringing this out.
As for Nazism and Modernity and a mischannelled instrumental/bureaucratic reason, the classic that should be read by all those interested in this topic is Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (though sections of my Modernism and Fascis are not bad!). The creative destruction of the Taliban or Pol Pot and even the 9/11 attack by Al Qaeda re absolutely bound up with the palingenetic logic of inaugurating a new age through symbolic violence (a syndrome explored by Dostoevsky in his The Possessed)

Thanks for your comments

Glenn W. Muschert (19 October 2009):

Dear Roger,

Thank you for your paper, which I viewed today with great interest. By trade, I am a sociologist, however I find disciplinary boundaries increasingly irrelevant. Once one has a secure job (which not everyone is able to achieve), then one no longer has a professional need to align oneself with any particular discipline. However, I find that for many of our least secure colleagues (particularly those at the early stages of their careers, or who operate on a political, disciplinary, or social margin), it is impossible to disregard the need to align yourself professionally with a particular discipline. This is ironic, as those who are new and/or on the margins are probably those folks who are most apt to open up new and fruitful interstices in the already-existing fields of knowledge. I think it is up to those of us who are secure in our positions to encourage those who are less so. Perhaps we will make some of these connections at this conference. In a practical sense, I encourage the participants to make some connections (social, intellectual) that could help to stimulate the types of academic productivity that we seem to be advocating here.

I like your thoughts on splitters and lumpers. This is similar to what the sociologist Georg Simmel said. To paraphrase, Simmel wrote that we are all either those who connect the seemingly unconnected, or those who make distinctions where none were previously seen. The key is to understand when we need to split, and when we need to lump. This point was well-made in your talk. Beyond that, we should perhaps also understand why something is lumped in the first place before splitting it, and vice versa. This is basically what Robert Frost had to say about tearing down walls. Also, we should understand that we need to make sure that we don’t re-split or re-lump, unless we know why we’re doing so, and to what end.

Thanks very much for a stimulating paper, and I look forward to your response.


Roger Griffin (20 October 2009):

Dear Glenn

Thanks for your comments on lumping: I am glad they had a certain resonance for you. However I would probably find reading you that you still operate within a certain conceptual framework and paradigm and wit a network of internal reference points to secondary literature that are recognizable those of sociology rather than of, say, History of Art or Political theory, no matter how creatively you interpret your briefs or trespass onto neighbouring disciplines. But I agree with you that once an academic has the qualifications and security of tenure to ‘break new ground’ he/she will almost inevitably move into transdisciplinary areas of conceptualization or phenomena to reveal hitherto invisible connections. At an undergraduate level such an openness of mind (which often demands MORE WORK than safe traditional scholarship) can be inhibited or encouraged among brighter students, and I am sure you and I encourage it from what it sounds.
Relevant to this discussion is also Isaiah Berlin’s essay on the hedgehog and the fox, which I always think is a false dichotomy because in trying to ONE BIG THING (the hedgehog) I am forced to behave like a frenzied fox (who knows many things)

All the best

Susan Morrison (20 October 2009):

Dear Roger, I really liked what you wrote about lumping and splitting and the need to figure out when to do one or the other. I’m in lumping mode now — I’m working on “Waste Studies” as applied to literature and my paper goes up Thursday–and it’s a massive field that draws on various disciplines (including sociology, anthropology, history, ecology, etc.). But you articulate so nicely what you call the “semi-permeable membranes that exist between disciplines.” That’s a nice metaphor and a lesson for the exchange those of us situated in one field (for me — literature) ideally should undertake–growth in knowledge shouldn’t be a vampiric act of merely taking from one field to enhance another, rather there should be a dialogue (or “trialogue”!) going on among practitioners of different disciplines. Best, Susan

Roger Griffin (22 October 2009):

Dear Susan
Thanks for taking the trouble to write. I had never heard of Waste Studies: I wonder what T.S. Eliot would have thought of such a thing in his Wasteland days. The project sounds fascinating and clearly means you trespassing all over the place to piece together a composite research topic. The only thing I would say is that the researching mind normally does not need to ‘figure out’ when to lump or split because it does so quite instinctively if it is in a healthy state: it is only when a researcher gets permanently stuck in one mode or the other and colleagues are too polite or disinterested to alert him/her that he/she has lost the plot that things go wrong. I am happy to send you a brief statement I make about methodology in my Modernism and Fascism if you send me your email (to, which you may find illuminating

All the best with your work

Roger Griffin

Scott Noegel (24 October 2009):

Dear Roger,

I very much appreciated your call for transdisciplinarity and I agree that we need to erect rainbow bridges in the academy. My question is, what practical, pragmatic steps might we take as academics to do this? Put another way, other than by producing work that demonstrates the utility of such an approach, what can we do structurally? As you observe, the academy tends to resist such efforts, or at least, often pays lip service to them. In the Humanities, for example, even the most interdisciplinary of programs tends to include some disciplinary elements of the social sciences, but not many disciplines beyond. What might you suggest as a means for helping to change the academic culture in this regard?



Roger Griffin (26 October 2009):

Dear Scott
You are quite right to home in on the practical implications of the call for interdisciplinarity. Ultimately I think the deciding element is the general cultural ethos, which is at present encouraging the breaking down of barriers thanks to such factors as the Web, the rise of a new generation of students used to plugging in and out of sources of information of the most varied kinds, the shift to academic career trajectories that move through a number of posts in different academic or professional environments, the rise of to prominence of the life sciences and ecology because of the looming ecological crisis both of which demand interdisciplinarity and the advances in various sciences which make interdisicplinarity essential. Such a shift can be encouraged by award-granting bodies being prepared to fund sound projects which set out to use cross-disciplinary specialisms in collaborative research, and could be promoted further in the way disciplines are presented at school, so that the porous membranes between some of them are stressed. I think the best text books do this already. However, I think such official promotion of interdisciplinarity would only be healthy if it was also accompanied by the stress even at school level on just how important specialization is and on the need to create a healthy dialectic between what I called centripetal and centrifugal tendencies in research. In educational terms I think the key period is between 6 and 16 when the sense of wonder at the universe that is natural to children tends to get replaced by an increasingly narrow understanding of disciplines as unconnected spheres of enquiry, only to have the barriers broken down again if they are lucky at university. The trouble is that most of the school children released into the world as adults have left whatever science they have studied at the time when it has been narrowed down and split up into separate disciplines and the sense of wonder at the interconnectedness of the universe has been lost in dim childhood memories. So in a word, school curriculum and teacher trainer reform is an important issue for long-term change. Ultimately, though government and educational policy can do little. It is for individual researchers, programme makers, publishers to do what they can to foster the New Enlightenment! Wiley-Blackwell’s conference is a small step in that direction.

Have you got any practical suggestions yourself?


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