Since starting my MA in October I’ve found that my research interests have taken new directions that I hadn’t anticipated. My particular field is memory, and whilst I continue to be interested in the social, political and cultural construction of memory, I am increasingly intrigued by the science behind memory and how our brains work, both individually and together, to understand the past. This requires borrowing ideas from psychology and neuroscience in an increasingly ‘interdisciplinary’ approach (that all important buzzword for funding applications), and it’s very exciting, even at this early stage in my course.
I am, however, aware of the dangers inherent in this kind of work, and these were brought into sharp relief by an article I discovered recently by physics professor Alan Sokal. To test what he perceived as the “ apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain… academic humanities”, Prof. Sokal submitted a spoof paper to the American journal Social Text in which he deliberately used dubious physics to support a consciously tenuous argument. He wanted to see whether his paper, that he believed would be obviously ridiculous to anyone from a physics or mathematics background, would be published despite the “nonsense and sloppy thinking” it contained. Needless to say, the paper was printed unchecked by any academic in the field, causing major embarrassment for the journal.
Prof. Sokal did this to highlight what he perceived as the ridiculousness of a critical approach that “denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance”. It’s a sentiment I superficially share, but not being in any way an expert on critical theory I don’t really feel I can comment on that one. Instead, for me the article highlighted the risks we run when borrowing indiscriminately from the sciences within the humanities. Whilst I believe strongly that this can be an incredibly fruitful collaboration, I think there is sometimes a tendency to draw on scientific ideas without necessarily attempting to understand them or keep up to date with the latest advances in that field.
One of the best, and most common, examples is the appropriation of Freudian psychoanalysis. Ideas such as the Oedipus Complex appear exciting, exotic and provocative, whilst ‘the return of the repressed’ has become such a commonplace that many students would likely not even know its origin despite using it in their essays. Yet Freud’s principles have been largely disproved by modern psychology, and much of psychoanalysis has even been shown to be dangerous for patients when used in practice. Freud himself is widely perceived as a bad scientist by today’s psychologists, basing many of his dubious conclusions upon himself as opposed to empirical and rigorous study. Yet many academics in the humanities continue to employ his principles as if they had been only been published last week.
Now before I offend anyone, I am not saying that we should never use psychoanalysis in cultural studies; indeed, for many modern and contemporary writers, artists etc., Freud is central to understanding their work. I simply believe that, if we are to engage with disciplines outside of our own, and in particular the sciences, we need to do so actively and scrupulously, attempting to ensure that we understand what we are talking about in its original context before applying it to our own field of study. Otherwise, instead of bring the disciplines together, we actually increase the distance between them by creating greater misunderstanding.