Disciplining Areas and Arealizing Disciplines

Statement about the conference “Areas and Disciplines” by Sheldon Pollock

A struggle has long been taking place in the American university, sharpening especially in the past two decades, between areal and disciplinary knowledge. The distinction between  the two often maps closely against another, between humanistic and non-humanistic knowledge; this is most obviously the case with philology, which in American universities has been organized entirely according to areas, and has had to date a profound disciplinary deficiency.

Like the humanities overall, philology has been weakened by fragmentation. The dramatic proliferation over the past century of philology departments has dispersed a core disciplinary knowledge-form across ever smaller, weaker, and more disposable academic
units. More recently, its position in the academy has been further eroded by the recrudescence of the area studies question itself and the new separation between
disciplinary and areal knowledge in the social sciences. The social science disciplines have dealt with their uneasy relationship with areas largely by demoting areal knowledge as non-scientific, and exiling area scholars. This has led to the rise of neo area studies, which, despite some obvious intellectual benefits, not only has left social science impoverished and provincialized, but has buried philology itself at the bottom of the closet where the other non-Western disciplinary appointments are now being placed.

It is not only institutional forces, however, that have weakened philology; it has also been endangered by its own conceptual failure. Philology has been so misconceived by its own practitioners that its full potential as a unified transregional and transhistorical academic discipline have never been realized. Serious reconceptualization is required if philology is to have a disciplinary home, one that unites textualists across areas and enables philology to create the new knowledge that will do more than anything to ensure its survival. And in fact, the redisciplinization of philology suggests a new and more broadly applicable paradigm. The problem of a reality and disciplinarity will never be solved until areas and disciplines are institutionally and conceptually rejoined, ensuring that both kinds of knowledge are produced simultaneously and interactively.

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