I can’t stop thinking about an article in Critical Inquiry by Stanley Fish, Theory’s Hope. It provides a staunch critique of “interdisciplinarity”:

As Chandler observes (correctly, I think), the totality of disciplines should be thought of not as “a set of parallel functions… but as a network of relatively autonomous practices in asymmetrical relation to one each other.” This does not mean that disciplines have nothing to say to one another but that the interest one discipline might have in what is being said in the precincts of another will be a function of the first discipline’s already-in-place investments and goals and not of some ambition or general effectivity all disciplines share or should share. To a great extent (and this is my observation with which Chandler may or may not agree) disciplines are linked only by the accident of their being housed in the same university structures. This cohabitation has not been the result of design and surely not of any philosophical design; it just happened as a consequence of the fortuitous success of various interests in securing space, research support, and a piece of the curriculum. It follows then that any attempt to find in this ramshackle collection an underlying unity either of practice or purpose is at once misguided and quixotic. Interdisciplinarity—as a project rather than as the mere fact of occasional and opportunistic borrowings�is just a nonstarter.

I do not intend this as a merely negative statement, for I believe that it is by focusing narrowly that we have the best chance both of getting it right and of speaking with power to the constituencies we do not directly address and, indeed, refrain from addressing. And I am sure that when we expand our focus and broaden our aims we lose whatever rigor we might be capable of achieving.

Composition (as the teaching-focused nexus of rhetorical studies) finds itself wedged right in the middle of this. The aim of departments focused on composition seems doomed to a lack of rigor by this definition because they are faced with communicating across departments “with a unity of practice or purpose”— which Fish finds “misguided and quixotic.”

Fish has a strong point about overly ambitious research agendas. Opening any of the professional journals, one could easily find examples of the type of theory Fish indicts:

Borrow a little of the Freudian model there, a little Habermas or Apfel, here and whenever you need a transition�say from the mirror stage to global capitalism or terrorism�throw in one of the more elastic bits from Rorty or Zizek or, better still, go on for a while about performativity. It’s all great fun, easier than falling off a log (and with the same problem of traction), pertinent to any point you care to make, and therefore pertinent to no point whatsoever.

Fish suggests that global extrapolations from theory are best left to the reader, rather than the researcher. The best research is specific and directed at solving particular problems located within a discipline. When the discipline emphasizes something diffuse and general (like “writing”) then the research agenda suffers accordingly. The problem is finding the specific in the midst of “misguided and quixotic” generalizations.

My problem is that no discipline exists in any university which specifically studies what interests me. My interests are split across literature, rhetoric, art, etc. It isn’t so much that I am interested in “composition” in the general sense, but rather I am interested in very specific applications of composed texts (documentary studies), which, alas, has no department to dictate standards of rigor.