Discipline Envy

Sometimes I have discipline envy.  Like this weekend, when an overzealous afternoon with the interlibrary loan system at my university meant that I found myself with 48 hours to survey 18 books carefully enough to be able to reference them in The Book Project.  It was an unpleasant way to spend a weekend, to be sure—a utilitarian exercise in speed reading.

Of course things went awry.  Just read the introductions and relevant chapters, I told myself—and then I came to the three books by Famous Author from the Other Discipline (FAOD) and Pretty Book that Weighs a Ton (PBWT).

Besides possibly giving me carpal tunnel,  PBWT made me extremely jealous about my own as-yet hypothetical book.  I can only imagine what the image permissions cost, let alone the 9X11.5 glossy pages.  The word that comes to mind is “luxurious.”  The book, about the more scientific uses of Victorian photography, ironically presented those scientific uses in the most artistic way possible (was this the editor’s subversive intent?).  This was a book that could very well make William Morris appreciate mass production.

The books by FAOD are similarly beautiful art objects.  What interests me so much about FAOD, however, are his arguments and his style: they surprise me; they seem so similar to the arguments and style I have encountered in books of a particular theoretical persuasion in my own discipline.  FAOD’s books remind me that no matter how far apart these two disciplines appear to be, they are also capable of sharing a discourse, a theoretic approach, a particular style.  Now, this style rubs some in my own discipline the wrong way, let alone the Other Discipline, where I am willing to bet FAOD is not universally adored.  So where does the primary loyalty lie?  To argument and style or to object of study?

The truth is, it’s hard to break into the Other Discipline from the outside—and for all our platitudes about “interdisciplinary scholarship,” it turns out that many of us in academia have grown comfortable in our silos.  So these books and the discipline they represent become objects of envy and desire—desire for the grass that’s always greener, in some ways, but also desire for a plot of grass that has no sides at all—or at least a plot of grass where the sides are measured by different criteria.

And all of this is a long way of saying that I did not make it through 18 books this weekend.

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