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Stanford Report, January 19, 2000

Scholar urges humanists to tear down disciplinary walls


With a nod to Freud, literary and cultural critic Marjorie Garber titled her talk "Discipline Envy."

Not to be confused with Venus envy, pencil envy or -- her favorite -- pinot envy.

To launch the Winter Quarter series of the Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts on Jan. 11, Garber targeted envy in the academy with elegant heat-seeking missives and accurately devastating wordplay.

The phenomenon of her title, Garber said, alluded to "the wish on the part of an academic discipline to model itself on or borrow from or appropriate the terms and vocabulary of another discipline."

"I intend envy to designate a mechanism, a kind of energy, an exhilarating intellectual curiosity," she added.

The William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard, Garber is the author of seven books. A Shakespearean scholar by training, much of her writing focuses on gender identity, like Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety and Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life.

Garber suggested that the boundaries marking today's disciplines mostly have to do with "training and certification and belonging to a guild."

"But it is also sometimes what Freud calls the narcissism of minor differences, a sibling rivalry among the disciplines, a symptom of academic culture."

In the past century alone, Garber said by way of example, "literary studies has yearned to be and model itself on linguistics, anthropology, social science, natural science, psychoanalysis, sociology, history and various kinds of philosophy."

But for all the yearning, the disciplines remain largely "gated communities," she said.

As she urged her listeners to cross prescribed boundary lines and strike off in horizon-widening paths, Garber set a dizzying pace in her talk. She criss-crossed dozens of fields of study, citing the work of John Dewey, Oscar Wilde, Mallarmé, Yeats, Roland Barthes, Copernicus, Darwin, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, Kant, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

One of her favorite fellow travelers was "disciplinary trespasser" Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the English mathematician, photographer, church deacon and sometimes fiction writer who published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. After reading a passage from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland about the lack of places set at a table, Garber wondered aloud if the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse and Alice might be likened to philosophy, English, history and cultural studies playing a contemporary game of musical chairs.

At Harvard, Garber has chaired the English department's "wild card" search committee, designed to attract exciting scholars who don't fit traditional categories. Once the committee recommends a candidate, she said, it is her job to help the department chair redescribe that person so that he or she can be a "perfect fit" for a search description.

Garber suggested that nontraditional scholars, like those who turn up as wild-card nominees, and geniuses are the knightly "bearers of authenticity" who may rescue the academy from discipline envy.

Defined by originality and creativity, geniuses are "antithetical to discipline," Garber said. "Geniuses do not belong to a discipline, but may found them."

At the conclusion of her talk, Garber dimmed the lights and conducted a close reading of two slides of Raphael's School of Athens, one of several frescoes the 15th-century Italian painter completed for the pope's library in Rome.

The first slide, of the original masterpiece, pictured the assembly of the most famous philosophers of the ancient world, dominated by Plato and Aristotle. The second, touched-up slide portrayed Garber in that assembly, seated stage center in an eye-catching blue gown and flanked by two golden retrievers.

"If the humanities have a future, and I fervently believe they do, it will be a future . . . that involves going back to the past and inhabiting that pre-disciplinary, interdisciplinary moment," Garber said when the laughter and applause had subsided.

Scholars willing to take that step, she said, would find that "Freud was righter than he knew when he imagined the human mind as being like the city of Rome, layer upon layer, not replacing but cohabiting with the past."

Garber argued that "our task at this hour is to reimagine the boundaries of what we have come to believe are disciplines and have the courage . . . to rethink them."

In a discussion with graduate students and faculty on Jan. 12, Garber expanded on the notion of discipline envy, likening it to sibling rivalry in a large, extended family that included the half-sisters and cousins of interdepartmental programs -- women's studies, gay and lesbian studies and area studies.

"But these programs can't just keep on multiplying and proliferating," she said. "Reorganizing academic structures and boundaries is very difficult, but we need to be asking, 'What makes intellectual sense?'"

The establishment of humanities centers on campuses cannot be heralded as an answer to the questions surrounding discipline envy either, Garber said.

"These centers are evidence of the problem -- they are not the answer. They are a stopgap to the desire to speak to people in other departments."

What is needed, Garber suggested, is nothing less than an extensive reorganizing and reshaping of existing humanities departments and programs. SR