Fly on the Wall—We Are What We Believe

Disciplines, Discipleship, and Being Disciplined

In Part 1, phallic symbols ran rife through our consumer goods and even the food we eat; no reasonable criticism like the extinction of fish species of global warming could rattle our cultural need to find a stable identity in what we eat and buy.

So, “ok, hold on just a hot minute” you might say: even if cultural symbols do provide a stable identity there remains the empirical fact that they don’t really do anything right?  Here is where our AU studies and the epistemological baseline (or flatline) of our chosen academic discipline takes centre stage.

Disciplines forge boundaries and carve up the intellectual landscape with no-go zones between them.  What counts as normal depends upon who you ask and what degree they hold.         As Thomas Kuhn stated that, “the commitments that govern normal science specify not only what sorts of entities the universe does contain, but also, by implication, those that it does not” (Kuhn, 7).   Shark fin soup lacks nutritional value and thus, in a sense, contains nothing of use to our bodies.  And, in truth, a truck does nothing for a man’s virility or charisma per se.  Yet, this all depends on how we define knowledge and from what perspective we speak; if a placebo works then it functions as a cure for what ails.

In fact, sometimes what’s left out is what’s most important: magical panaceas wouldn’t be so mystical and delightful if we knew the chemical makeup of their pixie-dust.  So it’s no wonder we humans resist rationality at times.  Just think of the charge of energy associated with the crackle-pop of a Diet Cola beverage (with a Mardi Gras bead necklace of zeros under nutrition facts) or a pricy bottle of bottled water (tasting sooo good while having no flavour).

Academically speaking, it’s not enough for disciplines to discount what’s beyond their wall of acceptable inquiry; often they subtly, or perhaps not so subtly, throw stones at other disciplines or even entire institutions.  Here in BC, students and faculty have been overheard to pejoratively refer to the University of Victoria as ‘the University of the Metaphor’, for instance.   Likewise, English literature speaks a different language than zoology although they may both cover the same topic.  Kuhn summarizes: “one of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions.  To a great extent these are the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or encourage its members to undertake.  Other problems, including many that had previously been standard, are rejected as metaphysical.” (Kuhn, 37).

Kuhn noted that we seek to know on terms—glorified by our favourite disciplinary epistemology.  Our egos are at stake, after all; we want to know that the way we know is valid and as universally applicable as possible.  Karen Horney, to this end, stated that “all drives for glory have in common the reaching out for greater knowledge” (Horney in Corsini and Wedding, 67).  What Kuhn calls normal science has definite markers beyond which a no-man’s land denies entry to those faithful to a given discipline: “normal-scientific research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies” (Kuhn, 24)

Kuhn gives examples throughout history where disciplinary barriers oscillate and absorb one another in a process akin to osmosis.  What becomes acceptable or unacceptable changes with the emergence of new findings.  He gives the parting of astronomy from astrology as one example and competing beliefs of the nature of electricity as another.  “Those electricians who thought electricity a fluid…could scarcely cope with the known multiplicity of attractive and repulsive effects, several of them conceived the idea of bottling the electrical fluid.  The immediate fruit of their efforts was the Leyden jar” (Kuhn, 17).  Shark fin soup, like Schrodinger’s cat, at this time in history appears simultaneously nutrition-less and as an aphrodisiac.   According to Kuhn one discourse will win out over the other.

Language arts are not immune from this process of truth closure: in the Foreward to his book, Kuhn thanks a Berkeley (sic) colleague who was “the only person with whom I have ever been able to explore my ideas in incomplete sentences” (xiii).  When proper grammar trumps meaning many English majors discount it out of hand.  Yet, who doesn’t appreciate Dr. Seuss?  Sometimes there is a place for plurality, although not within a single discipline.  The key thing in the formation of discrete disciplines is that, eventually, “the profession can no longer evade anomalies” and either spawns a new sub-discipline (psychology spawned neuroscience, for instance) or undergoes a crisis and recedes like a tide in the popular imagination (such as, arguably, occurred with astrology and certainly has with alchemy) (Kuhn, 6).  With shark fin soup, as with gas-guzzler automobiles, the answer in terms of environmental science may seem more valid than that of culture and identity: we can’t simultaneously have our sense of power and our planet.

Personal lives, too, may gravitate from one orb of influence and set of assumptions to another such that what made sense, or counted most, ceases to achieve the same potency.  Farley Mowat described how his private shift away from taxonomical science was precipitated by his experience of modern warfare, which by the 20th Century had adopted all the trappings of an industrial slaughterhouse:           “So it was that at the end of 1946 I found myself far up in the forests of northern Saskatchewan at a place called Lac La Ronge.  Nominally I was there to collect birds for a museum, but I had put my gun away, for I soon had enough of ‘scientific’ destruction, even as I had had enough of killing in wartime.  The search for tranquillity which had led me hopefully into science had failed, for now I could see only a brutal futility in the senseless amassing of little bird mummies which were to be preserved from the ravages of life in dark rows of steel cabinets behind stone walls.” (Mowat, 19).

A discipline’s shifting goals, in philosophical terms its teleology, involve a shift more metaphysical than empirical.  Since Mowat’s time biology has moved from learning about new species as an end in itself to discovering them so to better protect them.  Cultural evolution is no exception: shark fin soup might eventually be replaced by an alternate form of prestige enhancement.  At the sociological level of culture, we might expect that people will increasingly move away from this dish and, following dominant method of Western scientific discourse, do so while citing facts about the precipitous declines in shark population.  Meanwhile, truck sales in North America may decline as high gas prices and the harm caused by carbon emissions becomes a dominant narrative.  As students our personal growth as scholars might lead us to alter our Majors as we wind our way through our programs of study and encounter new realms of inquiry too.  Learning is about learning to change as well as absorbing new facts and figures.

Prestige is a tough nut to crack though, and our academic disciplines cling to their traditions just as our national cultures do.  As Lacan made clear, we seek power as the essence underpinning our sense of identity.  Perhaps phallic symbols are here to stay even as they adopt new forms; after all, when Freud famously claimed that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar it was as a defense against being asked about his inveterate cigar habit!  Possibly phallic symbols change as we do, and we are what we consume in our given epoch and according to what our culture defines items as powerful and important.  So long as we believe our degree is worth working for, we’re in good stead here at AU.

Corsini, R.J.  & Wedding, D.  (2014).  Current Psychotherapies.  Toronto: Nelson Education.
Kuhn, T.  (1996).  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mowat, F.  (2005).  People of the Deer.  New York: Avalon Publishing.