The IAS, Durham memories, and what Interdisciplinarity means to me

Apr 22, 2024 | Fellows, Interdisciplinarity, Transformations (Issue 12)

The IAS, Durham memories, and what Interdisciplinarity means to me
Dr Avishek Parui, Associate Professor in English, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras

Returning to Durham as an IAS Fellow, as someone who teaches and researches on Memory Studies, is in many ways the perfect progression of my personal and academic journey. For this is the place I did my PhD from almost ten years ago, on imperial masculinities and nervous conditions in the fiction of Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell. My first academic tryst with interdisciplinarity may have started from my supervisor Patricia Waugh’s beautiful office in Hallgarth House, listening to her speak with her characteristic brilliance and élan on Spinoza and Antonio Damasio, on the Modernist stream-of-consciousness and contemporary neuroscience, on how fiction and literary theory can engage with cognitive studies and illustrate complex states of memory and forms of embodiment. I was her supervisee as well as her biggest fan, and did nothing to conceal the latter bit. As I arrived in Durham again this January, after landing in Newcastle airport on a cold drizzly evening, I looked forward this time to working with Alex Easton, long-time collaborator, Director of IAS, and Professor in Psychology. The academic alchemy of fiction, memory, and neuroscience was about to kick off again for me.

Interdisciplinarity is, in my view, a play, a ludic landscape of academic arrangement and anticipation that breaks boundaries while also creating new horizons where minds and matter may or may not meet. Like almost all forms of play, it needs trust and touch, the theme of my research project at the IAS with Alex, appropriately enough. It is a fluid form of play, where each subject brings a set of shapes from their disciplinary field while also making new arrangements on the go as the fields mix and merge, again relying on trust and touch, starting from the simple moment when a group of academics from different disciplines walk in one room, shake each other’s hands, and attempt to engage in a common concept, while also sharing a simple lunch, tea, and coffee. The image of that scene and activity, in my experience, best describes the IAS in Durham, which is literally and symbolically a site of interdisciplinarity. The energy and (in)security of interdisciplinarity invite the homo academicus to become homo ludens again, allowing play to happen, outside of narrowly defined and carefully guarded disciplinary territories, allowing academic subjects to step out of their securities, also making them less insecure in the process of play. The (in)security of interdisciplinarity is rewarding as well as reifying, making it partial as well as dialogic, additive as well as asymmetric. But it is perhaps that one word that can make otherwise very different academics agree to come together, trust each other, and co-create, with the hope to make and grow something shareable and solid, if not perfectly cooked and complete. This is too tangibly true for Memory Studies, which can only exist and emerge as a discipline if it is always already routed through and plugged in an interdisciplinary network of knowledge and research-roads.  Interdisciplinarity in Memory Studies is thus not just a series of epistemic extensions, rather it is a fundamental ontological condition that is essentially, and some may argue, extravagantly inclusive, doing away with disciplinary hierarchies while also deconstructing dualisms. This is ironically appropriate for a field of study that examines remembering and forgetting; nostalgia and anticipatory-imagination, as cognitively connected as well as functionally entangled, both in their molecular mechanisms and cultural conditions. For memory may also be examined through its absence or loss, sometimes more reliably that way. This innate yet productive paradox is at the heart of Memory Studies, and it is what perhaps makes it organically interdisciplinary in its epistemic spirit, whereby stellar scholars and researchers in psychology as well as cultural studies spend great archival and laboratorial time and resources only to conclude that we know too little about memory and its associated functions that shape psychological and cultural conditions. But instead of Sisyphean exhaustion, this cyclicity of exploration and incompletion is perhaps what continues to create collaborative currency and energy in the engine of Memory Studies, which has always already invited interdisciplinarity from its inception, and which, to quote my favourite poet Philip Larkin, has always valued “the importance of elsewhere” where “strangeness made sense”.

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