Wanted: Transdisciplinary Methodologies in order to Analyse Histories Inscribed into Bodies and Minds

Sabine Grenz, Humboldt University, Berlin

Keywords: Interdisciplinarity, Cultural Memory

Who actually is travelling? Are the concepts travelling or is it us who move
through different locations, periods of times and disciplines, and look at concepts from changing positions, thereby giving or discovering new meanings to/of concepts? To begin with, I want to say something about my academic development and disciplinarity/interdisciplinarity, showing my dis-/agreement with some of the positions in this arena . In a second part, I will write about my research interests, which follow an interdisciplinary approach.

Inter-, Trans- and/or Multidisciplinarity
I submitted my Ph.D. thesis in Gender Studies on the Construction of Male Heterosexuality in Prostitution in the summer of 2004. For this thesis I conducted narrative interviews with male clients of female prostitutes and analysed them using discourse analysis. My special emphasis was to show how being a client is grounded in everyday cultural assumptions of masculinity and femininity (1). For this reason I had to look into the historicity of such cultural beliefs, and exactly this makes the work inter- or (if you wish) transdisciplinary. I was qualified (and admitted) to do my Ph.D. in Sociology, however, I chose Gender Studies because of the opportunity to combine different methodologies. After all, I could have written the very same Ph.D. in Sociology. Of course, only with a professor who agreed with the use of qualitative methodology, Foucauldian discourse analysis and cultural historical research. Even in Sociology nobody would have expected me to know every methodology or everything about any other field. I could perfectly well have specialised in qualitative methodology and gender issues. So, my question is: what does it mean ‘that interdisciplinarity can only work when one is firmly grounded in her discipline’ as Therese Garstenauer asserts in her position paper, and as is a widespread opinion in German speaking academia? Behind such assertions is the assumption that people working in interdisciplinary fields are merely superficially educated. Certainly, this might sometimes be the case, however, equally there are people in any discipline who are not particularly knowledgeable, who are careless with their methodology, and so forth. So, why is Gender Studies as an interdisciplinary field so besieged?

My suspicion is that first of all there is an arrogance of established disciplines. The statement that one has to be firmly grounded in one’s discipline suggests that disciplines are unities bringing together scientists of the ‘same’ field of research. They guarantee a standard. People owning degrees are approved. Just as a reminder, Sociology is also not such an old discipline and Simmel, one of the great sociologists, continued to call his works on money Philosophy of Money (1920), perhaps in order to avoid being discriminated against as a sociologist? Similar things may have happened in other younger disciplines such as Biology and Psychology. I believe that to make use of this argument – that could also simply be read as a defence of oneself – entails an exclusionary mechanism with regard to everybody who has moved into an interdisciplinary field and left the ‘stable’ ground of a discipline. After a while doing research in an interdisciplinary field one is not grounded in a discipline anymore, since being grounded does not only mean to know the past of this field but also the very current discussions. And who can keep up with this amount of reading in two or more different fields?

The other reason I see for this disciplinary entrenchment is a very subtle form of sexism. One can always degrade feminist work as interdisciplinary, as being the ‘bastard’ of academic work, in which it is no longer possible to filter out the different ‘pure’ disciplines. At least this is how I very often feel, when people refer to their disciplines as stable entities, a stability I lack. Of course, I was also trained in a discipline (2) and I am shaped by its history and the discussions of 90s . However, I cannot claim to be part of Educational Science or Sociology anymore, since I am not familiar with current discussions. And if I was, it could only be a small portion of the discipline, my expertise. At a very insightful talk at a conference on psychoanalysis at Humboldt-University last summer, Bettina Mathes (2004) highlighted the similarities between the fate of psychoanalysis as a ‘Jewish’ discipline in the 30s and the slow process of institutionalizing Gender or Feminist studies in Germany. Between the two there are at least the parallels of the marginalised, the improper, impure, contaminated subjects (in the sense of topics as well as individuals (3)), the ‘nomad’ as Braidotti (1994) puts it. Transferred to international work, would anyone seriously demand that one needs to be firmly grounded in a nation in order to do international or transnational work? Whose valuable voices would be omitted then? And who can claim not to be shaped by geographical and social locations, by political circumstances and one’s own academic biography? In other words, is it not like the struggle Dasa Duhacek refers to when she quotes Virginia Woolf’s ‘as a woman I have no country’ and Adrienne Rich’s struggle for accountability (1986: 211)? Might we say now ‘as a woman I have no discipline’ and still I have a discipline that shaped me and that I shape?

Of course, when I start working on a subject, I feel the obligation to study what has been produced on this topic before. After all, I do not want to invent the wheel again. It is clear that I have to know a field of research well in order to find the gaps or have good research ideas. And certainly, I have to account for the methodology I use. I have to make my steps transparent and I am ‘no-nonsensely commited’ to providing ‘faithful accounts of a “real” world’ (Haraway, 1991: 187) (4). Why, then, should it be necessary that we stick to disciplines instead of doing research according to themes (as is practice in most research institutions anyway), so as to allow ourselves to move forward to new topics and new methodologies?

My training and also my teaching in Gender Studies at Humboldt-University (where we, too, have a discussion on disciplinarity/inter-, trans-, multidisciplinarity) then pose similar questions to those raised by Ulla Holm in a former version of her position paper. She discussed the problematic of being in ‘the paradoxical position of disciplining a field of research and education we have proudly dubbed inherently interdisciplinary’. Her discussion of different positions on this issue seems a fruitful way to develop the area of Gender studies, instead of sticking to disciplines that tend to reproduce divisions among researchers.

My Research Interests: War and sexual violence, linked to ethnicity, sexuality and gender In terms of my own research I have a preference for empirical work but cannot help but approach topics in an interdisciplinary manner. This stems from my interest in combining cultural theories with empirical material. I am interested in drawing maps of ‘history tattooed on our skins’ (Braidotti, 2002: 41), meaning the ‘history’ - or, better, historically grown beliefs - that accompany us in the present and shape our daily life. In my Ph.D. thesis I interviewed clients of prostitutes and investigated historically embedded aspects (discourses in a wider sense of action as well as language) of gender inscribed on and into their bodies and bodily expressions (their language). However, my interest was not only in investigating discourses as merely coming from outside – inscribing into their skin – but also in the client’s complicity. One of the questions was how they made use of current gendered discourses in order to defend / reproduce (and more importantly: hide) their privileges and their power position.

For my new research I remain faithful to the above stated aim to draw a map of the ‘history tattooed on our bodies’ (Braidotti 2002: 3). However, this time I am interested in narratives of German women who experienced rape, imprisonment and displacement at the end and after the Second World War in Germany. My plan is to conduct again narrative interviews with women who had these experiences and to analyse the different discursive layers of those the same. This interest raises several questions. Why am I interested in this topic? Why indeed should one be interested in German victims in the face of the cruelties committed by Germans during the period of fascism and the Second World War? It is very well known that many women were raped during this period. There is no need to give it a voice in this sense. Indeed, the fact that most reported cases were perpetrated by Soviet soldiers was often instrumentalised (in the West) during the cold war. However, at the same time these claims hit on the collective German guilt consciousness, which absolutely denies the victim status of any German. As a result, this topic became a taboo and, hence, still appears to be socially relevant, despite the war having been over more than 60 years ago. . This is especially the case right now, since there are discussions going on about a memorial of expelled and the president from the German association (Bund der Vertriebenen) speaks very vocally on behalf of the expelled Germans (and it is not clear how many of those who were expelled 60 years ago share this interest). Additionally, some of the so-called ‘ethnic’ Germans who were expelled from these regions (or moved later to the West) aim to claim ownership of properties that once belonged to their families. It appears as if in this case one cannot only talk about ‘history tattooed on our bodies’ but rather of different layers of petrified discourses, one rock stratum above the other, broken, melted again, having gone through enormous metamorphosis ‘deep in the earth’ (people’s minds) and coming back to the surface mixed with each other, pieces of one sort embraced in another. Similar to a geologist I try to find out which is which, how they are combined and how they still change and develop. What I wish to have is a discussion on feminist epistemology, on representation and interpretation, discussions about ethics, nationalism and racism (5).

Other topics are vital, too. I have already had the opportunity to interview three women, and these interviews were enlightening. During them – without any deeper interpretation – it became obvious, for example, that the link between identity and sexuality has a different meaning for them as is – based on Foucault’s work – stated in current theories (e.g. Halperin, 1993). Furthermore, one can only assume that such experiences (of many women at the same time) have influenced the history of sexuality, which needs to be investigated. Linked to this I see the development of modern warfare that seems to increasingly make use of sexual violence as a strategy (cf. Wenk, 2004). Or is this phenomenon just a question of media representation? Either could be seen as coinciding with sexual expressions in other areas. And this again will influence the individual experience of sexual violence.

Accordingly, there are many questions to be raised. Who needs work on such a topic? The women who had this experience or us? For whom do I speak? What are the ethical implications of foregrounding victimised Germans? How is the experience of sexual violence shaped by racism? How can one reflect on such an experience? What kinds of discourses mark the taboo? How is this experience connected with social beliefs in other areas? What has been excluded? What highlighted? How can a collective experience shape the development of sexual cultures? And vice versa, how is such an individual experience shaped by sexual cultures of the particular society we live in?

(1) I very much sympathize with Clare Hemmings’ emphasis (referring again to Iris van der Tuin) on the importance of doing empirical research through a critical theory lens
(2) I have a degree in Educational Science and studied Sociology as a minor. Later I qualified for doing a PhD in Sociology and worked in sociological research projects.
(3) Elena Pulcini’s work on the contaminated subject is extremely helpful here. I believe that the insistence on disciplines is a disciplinary neglect of the ways in which disciplines themselves are contaminated, have the’ other’ within.
(4) Of course, without neglecting a constructionist perspective on any research.
(5) For this reason Giovanna Covi’s discussion is vital for me, since she emphasises the need to differenciate the debate on racism from a European perspective . Just to give an impression of the problematic: some women could have been actively supporting the fascist state leading an extermination war and still it is difficult to come to terms with rape as justified. At this point of the discussion the figure of the ‘revenge seeking soviet soldier’ regularly appears, especially when people try to ‘understand’ the rapes. This figure is really questionable, since it makes a completely anonymous war with millions of soviet soldiers a personal issue. But instead of this figure there could also appear the ‘barbarian Russian’, blindly raping any woman that perfectly fits both the fascist ideology of the subordinated ‘Slavic race’ and cold war politics. In both representations soviet soldiers are unified. There is no place for representations of them, for instance, being shocked by their fellow soldiers.

Braidotti. R. (1994). Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.
Braidotti, R. (2002). Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming. Cambridge: Polity.
Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Halperin, D.M. (1993). Is There a History of Sexuality?. In Abelove, H., Barale, M.A., & Halperin, D.M. (Eds.), The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (pp. 416-31). London: Routledge.
Haraway, D. (1990). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. In Haraway, D., Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Mathes, B. (2004). Gender Studies auf der Couch. Was die Geschlechterforschung von der Psychoanalyse lernen kann. Hommage an Christina von Braun. Schönheit und Schwindel. Geschlecht und Geschichte. Die Philosophin. 30, 109-121.
Rich, A. (1986). Notes Toward a Politics of Location. In Blood, Bread and Poetry. New York & London: W.W. Norton and Company.
Simmel, G. (2001/1920). Philosophie des Geldes. Cologne: Parkland Verlag
Wenk, S. (2004). Inszenierungen des Sehens: Zum Nutzen der Psychoanalyse bei der Untersuchung visueller Politiken. Aktuaität der Psychoanlys:. Gender-Kolloquium zu Ehren von Christina v. Braun und Inge Stephan, Humboldt-Universität.

© 2005
email: sabine.grenz@gender.hu-berlin.de