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Interdisciplinary Thinking and Cultural Theory

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

As an undergrad at the University of Chicago, I had the wonderful good fortune to find teachers whose thought was rooted in life and work in the world beyond the university.

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Reading Aristotle’s de Anima with philosopher-psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin made me a dialectical thinker; later, it was Gene who sent me on to Heidegger and the post-structuralists. In my third year, after a course on the analytic philosophy of science catalyzed a crisis with my philosophy major, I discovered what I did not know I was looking for through a remarkable lecture course on “History, Historicity, and the Narrative” team-taught by David Tracy, Paul Ricoeur, Stephen Toulmin, and Landon Gilkey at the Divinity School. Thanks to the generosity and support of theologian David Tracy, I found my way to the (now-defunct) Committee on the Analysis of Ideas and the Study of Methods, where I was able to write an undergraduate thesis exploring the gendering of historical labor that drew on Aristotle, Heidegger, Arendt, Freud, and Adorno and Horkheimer.

After graduation, a Rotary Fellowship sponsored a long sojourn in Tübingen immersed in the philosophical traditions embodied by that venerable institution. Living and thinking in German deepened my questions about subjectivity and history—and further distanced me from the disciplinary canons of Anglo-American philosophy. Back home, analytic philosophy was on the ascendant; continental traditions were being marginalized and feminist perspectives regarded with suspicion. Weighing the disadvantages of proceeding in a discipline that was unwelcoming (when not actively hostile) to the sort of work I wanted to continue against more attractive offers from interdisciplinary programs in California—and hopeful, like many at that time, that the institutional hegemony of the disciplines was waning and interdisciplinarity formations would be the wave of the future—I decided to throw in my lot with philosophy’s predecessor and pursue a Ph.D. in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.

I arrived at a liminal moment for the Rhetoric Department. Living through the cultural upheaval that accompanied the profound intellectual and institutional changes that ensued over the next few years provided invaluable professional lessons in the disciplinary dynamics associated with theoretical innovation—and the difficulties that accompany departmental transformation. Working within a curriculum still oriented by the canonical rhetorical and philosophical inheritance, I was trained as a teacher of oral argumentation and writing and rhetoric as established paradigms were being challenged and evolving. Newer approaches inspired by post-structuralism and critical practices associated with feminism and gender studies, visual, media, and cultural studies, psychoanalysis, and theories of race, class, and empire as well as theoretical developments in allied disciplines including literary and legal studies, history, anthropology, and sociology inflected our seminars; ongoing conflicts over the status of graduate student labor shaped our collective experience.

Inspired by Martin Jay’s intellectually voracious approach to intellectual history and J.M. Bernstein’s wholehearted dedication to philosophizing as a critical enterprise oriented to contemporary life, sustained in my commitment to writing and thinking that is not merely academic by the incomparable Arthur Quinn and Felipe Gutterriez, I developed the unconventional interdisciplinary dissertation project that would eventually lead to Experience without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity. Along the way, Robert Holub provided all manner of support, most decisively by insisting that I also train in foreign language pedagogy and teach German.

During my final years in California, I had several opportunities to live and teach for a term at Deep Springs, one of the nation’s oldest still existing experimental colleges, located on a ranch in the high desert in California’s White Mountains. After finishing my degree, I spent two years as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Rochester, teaching German language and culture as well as literature, theory, and German intellectual history in translation, before departing for an Assistant Professorship at the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA) at Emory University.

In Atlanta, as at Chicago and Berkeley, I was fortunate to find myself in an environment that supported interdisciplinary exploration and creativity. Founded in 1952 as one of the first graduate degree programs in the humanities at Emory, the ILA was the second oldest interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in the U.S.. It had evolved over time into a diverse and experimental space that supported a community of scholars committed to institutional and intellectual innovation and social action. ILA Ph.D.s became founding figures in significant emergent fields nationally, and at Emory, the Institute incubated many departments and programs, notably African American Studies, Art History, Comparative Literature, the Center for Digital Scholarship, Film and Media Studies, Psychoanalytic Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Surrounded by colleagues with expertise in diverse world areas, periods, and disciplines committed to maintaining a flexible curriculum and highly individualized programs of graduate study oriented toward a changing world, I was challenged and enabled to pursue work that could not have been done elsewhere.

In this dynamic environment, I finished Experience without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity (Stanford UP), which was awarded the Modern Language Association Prize for a First Book, and the German Studies Association-DAAD Prize. The Humboldt Foundation and the American Academy in Berlin, among others, supported research leaves in Germany that enabled me to extend my research on Georg Simmel and supported work on a still-ongoing study of the transformation of memory sites in the former east since the unification.

I had just begun a year’s leave in residency at Emory’s Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry when we received the shocking news that the ILA had fallen victim to budget cuts and would cease to serve as a tenure home. Adapting to this new institutional reality entailed renegotiation of appointments and teaching contributions—a particularly challenging undertaking for those of us who did not have a “home discipline” to return to, but also a process that deepened my insights into the seachange that higher education had undergone since I embarked on graduate study. During this period, I also trained in mediation and conflict resolution, becoming a Registered Neutral with the State of Georgia, and participating in a series of University Faculty Senate-led initiatives that helped pave the way for the eventual establishment of the University Ombuds Office.

Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary (Stanford UP), which appeared during my first year in my new tenure home in the English Department, reflects a transformed understanding of the theoretical, historical, and cultural stakes of my work. As it happened, the book went into production just before the 2016 election and appeared in a changed world. By the following fall, when I delivered the keynote address at the first conference ever devoted to Simmel as philosopher, held in Wuppertal, Germany on the centennial of his death, it was clear that my way forward would require new forms of intellectual practice.

From my new institutional home in the Emory English Department and through affiliations with Comparative Literature, German Studies, History, and Philosophy, I have reimagined and extended my interdisciplinary teaching profile, and my writing has evolved in new and more experimental directions. As the environmental and technological threats that have shaped the horizon of my thinking since my own college years become more pressing with every passing year and the destructive psychic, cultural, and political impacts of digitization and automation ever more evident, the practical tasks of cultural theory appear ever more urgent. Especially since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, my publications have become ever more directly focused on the contemporary world.

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