W10: Century Lecture (EC) by Stephanie Mercier

For our last class we had the pleasure of listening to a lecture entitled “Modes of Interdisciplinarity in Art and Techno-Science” by Michael Century, music history and theory professor at Berkeley. First what does interdisciplinarity mean? It’s not in the dictionary – I suspect he made the word up like a few other words he used in the lecture. Interdisciplinarity he explained is a term that refers to how several areas of knowledge interact with one another.

At the beginning of the lecture he talked mainly about the history of the interaction between art, science, and technology (or interdisciplinarity). He contends that periods of stability in which there is little interdiscpilinarity often alternate with periods of threshold in which interdisplinarity is a major focus. He presented a flow chart which showed the main periods of alternation throughout history. The flowchart included the middle ages, renaissance, modern, and information age as the main time periods. The middle ages were characterized by a single system, social hierarchy, and fixed categories which fit into Century’s categorization of stability. After the middle ages followed the Renaissance which was a time of great change and cooperation between scientists and artists, which is characteristic of a threshold period. Following the Renaissance was the Modern time period which includes the industrial Revolution. This period was characterized by dualism, an ascendance of science, specialization, and recompartmentalization which is again another time of stability. The last period (the current time period) is the information age, an age characterized by reflexivity, social fluidity, hybridity, and decompartmentalization; also, a threshold period.

In each threshold period there are several ways, or modes, that scientists and artists interact. There are three modes he claims of interdiscplinarity which he calls Integrative – Synthesis, Service – Instrumental, and Reflexive – Ontological. In intergrative – synthesis, “two or more disciplines are brought together with the aim of combining insights or methods to produce new knowledge or objects not possible in each separately.” In service – instrumental, “techniques or approaches of one serve as a means to an end (instrumentally) defined by the other.” In reflexive – ontological, interdisciplinarity is achieved “by challenging the foundational principles of a field” to create new kinds of objects and knowledge. He gives many examples of each including examples from his own work in virtual reality technology. There are too many to explain in detail but the point is to give support for his argument and show how engineers, scientists, and artists can work together, which I think is a very good point to end the class. In the beginning we talked about these two cultures, art on one side and science on the other, that were artificially separated. And throughout the class we’ve been exploring ways in which art, science, technology, have merged. But Century’s theory of interdisciplinarity modes give us a way to think of interaction between art, science, and technology in a more abstract way which can be applied to all ideas. We’ve been given many examples throughout the whole year, but I feel this last lecture filled in the gaps and strengthened the underlying concept of the class.

-Stephanie Mercier

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