Disciplines and Discipline

We sometimes forget that academic disciplines are just that–disciplines. The organization theorist Karl Weick has said that his own approach, what he calls organizational sensemaking, is less a “theory” than a kind of “disciplined imagination”. This echoes earlier attempts by philosophers like Michel Foucault and Thomas Kuhn to shift our focus from scientific theories, our understanding of which they felt (in 1960s) had been dominated by logical positivists, to “discursive formations” and “disciplinary matrices”. The basic idea is that scholarship is always shaped by social forces and that scholarly competence requires us to subject ourselves to discipline.

Indeed, Foucauldians will be sensitive to the pun implicit in the idea of an “academic subject”. In ordinary speech, it denotes an area of study, a topic of inquiry, like management accounting or renaissance poetry. But “the academic subject” can also be the center of a particular kind of experience, and a particular way of talking–what Foucault sometimes calls a “point of subjectivity” and sometimes calls an “enunciative modality”. It is what we also sometimes call “the self”, though philosophers differ about how much “personality” subjectivity requires. My self-as-scholar may be very different from my self-as-father; that is, scholarship and fatherhood may involve wholly different forms of subjectivity even in the life of the same person. The question is, Who am I when I am a scholar? (When I’m writing, for example.) How did I become him?

Jonathan Mayhew has emphasized the importance of “self-fashioning” in scholarship, retooling Stephen Greenblatt’s concept for the purpose. In my view, the aim is to become more articulate. And this, of course, requires “discipline” in the sense of resolute, orderly practice. It also requires a sort of “discipleship”, i.e., the resolve to follow a master, a teacher. We subject ourselves to discipline, it almost subjugates us. This is what produces the particular kind of articulate subjectivity we’re after as scholars.

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