One of my favourite images in Gilles Deleuze’s work is that of the detective. By the end of his life, writing What Is Philosophy?, he’d given such images a different name – conceptual personae.
A conceptual persona is a style of thinking, but understood as the model for the thinker herself to follow. It's the shape you settle into as you fly along the narrative, making it up as you go along – in this particular case – thinking as a detective.
I think that's a great idea. Philosophical thinking is about the careful creation of new concepts, the analysis of their components, and their relationships with each other. Bringing that conceptual engineering to the empirical research programs of cultural studies and the many branches of sociology can create a powerful new research program – even a revolutionary way of thinking.
Naturally, there are a lot of factors in the way of such a development. One is that it’s – in Deleuze’s words – a minoritarian intellectual movement. It’s a rebellion against the mainstream institutional norms of scholarship – disciplines fragment, but rarely unite.
Academia is an institution whose growth engine is schism, division, breaks, fragmentation into isolated silos of discourse. Create a new journal with an even narrower research constituency. Start creating new departments and hire more contingent adjunct professors to teach their courses.
Doesn’t matter that fewer universities can subscribe to all those new journals, since no journal ever lowers its subscription price in this supply-crowded market. Doesn't matter that new departments will compete with each other and older disciplines for limited pools of research, teaching funding, and student pools. Doesn’t matter that the system is perverse and devouring itself.
Academia needs people to open paths of rebellion and revolution against its vicious incentives. We have a piece going up at SERRC tomorrow discussing this exact need to demolish the most destructive institutional habits of humanities scholarship. So I have this on the mind.
My friend’s reaction: “That sounds like an amazing inter-disciplinary field!” We apply for research grants, build up a few major methodological works and studies, set up a few offices, start a journal, develop a graduate (and then an undergraduate) curriculum. We’ve ended up creating our own fragmented silo of a narrow discipline.
This is the institutional tragedy of what’s typically called interdisciplinary studies. You first approach the problem wanting a vector that Deleuze and Félix Guattari called trans-disciplinary – a new direction of thinking, writing, and research that explores entirely new territory with an entirely new structure than the academy.
You ended up with another academic department. Shit. It makes you think you might have to leave the university institutions behind to have any real success with these creative new directions. Or at least head out to its limits while still being able to access some of its funding and office space.*
* Or at least office supplies.
What would such a new kind of empiricist philosophy look like? Well, I can start with a brief thought about the institutions. Unfortunately, that thought is that I have no idea what those institutions would look like at all.
Such a research program would have to rely largely on universities for funding. Even if funding could be taken care of independently, the program would still need existing bodies of actual research. There would probably be a lot of online organizing among participants, making it potentially a global enterprise.
But that’s all I’ve got right now. So what would the actual research and writing practice be?