Crossing Disciplines is Studying What Is

Between March 14-16, the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies hosted its Distinguished Visiting Scholar Prof. Pamela H. Smith (Columbia University). During her visit Prof. Smith gave two talks: “Historians in the Laboratory: Art and Science in Early Modern Europe” and “Transforming Matter and Making Art in a Sixteenth-Century Workshop,” as well as two lab-workshops in which we reconstructed sixteenth-century techniques of creating lake pigments with natural colorants. All four events, reflecting the spirit of the Making and Knowing Project, were fascinating, enriching and superbly organized. Contemplating these events, I find that they all conceptually relate to three main axes that might seem contradictory, but are not necessarily so:

  • Synthesis and analysis
  • Body and intellect
  • Past and future


Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Workshop Techniques, Earth Sciences Lab, University of Toronto

Synthesis and analysis: we tend to assume that the process involved in making things is like a two-way road; that each point in the process can be reached from its beginning or its end. Therefore, no matter where we are coming from, if we will adequately experience the whole process, we will arrive at the same points. This assumption is the basis of studying how things become what they are, whether they are abstract or concrete, complicated or simple. But, paradoxically, each point within a process is an open space, a location in which anything can happen, and the only fixed element in relation to the process is our own idea how its beginning and end appear. We think about a process as “successful” when it matches our expectations, or when it exceeds them by performing some quality that we appreciate. We judge it as a “failure” when the opposite happens, when reality doesn’t fit our conceptions of it, or even worse. Synthesis and analysis are not two opposite movements that run towards or from each other. They are two arbitrary definitions of where we locate ourselves and our mental pictures in relation to what is.

Red lake I          Red lake II

Making red lake in the workshop I                                               Making red lake in the workshop II

Body and intellect: many of us have internalized the notion that body and intellect contradict each other; that both entities can exist and indeed thrive independently, and, moreover, that one of them is always dominant over the other; that at any given moment there is some kind of hierarchy between them. There are things we do for our body and things we do for our intellect, and when we do those things we use “body” and “intellect” to categorize and explain our activities to ourselves and others. As with the conceptualization of “synthesis” and “analysis,” this notion is fundamental to how we perceive learning processes, and not less than that, education and practical teaching. But this notion is merely a convention, a framework by which one can portray reality that actually hasn’t heard about these two categories, let alone, about the differences between them. From reality’s point of view, body and intellect are the very same situation; a single instrument that makes things happen, processes occur, causes tasks to be achieved, etc. There is no boundary delineating between our physical and rational experiences, and the best place to see this borderless phenomenon is nature. In the natural realm, materials and living creatures behave “rationally” without having “intellect”. They know what to do next because their body tells them where they are about to find their relatively perfect future.

Red lake III

Making red lake in the workshop III

Past and future: crossing disciplines is studying what is. In most cases, the academic system requires people to choose between disciplines, departments, and fields. Everyone has their specialization and usually this functions as an adjective that describes a scholar. In order to identify yourself you throw a name of a field into the air, and in order to survive you pay much heed to the echo that comes back to you. But reality (our star tonight) is so very different; it doesn’t hold back when chemistry gets too close to physics, history to painting, and culinary to chemistry. If we were to embrace a norm of crossing disciplines as a way of developing academic maturity, we would have to adjust our perception of nature and time. This is probably one of the challenges the system faces when it comes to maintaining fluidity. Unlike in our culture, in nature there’s plenty of time; it doesn’t rush anywhere, because any adjective that might describe it has been already echoed by nature itself. Ideally, we could imitate nature in the way we study, in addition to how we create tangible objects; to work as if we have all the time in the world; when past, present and future are there only to remind us to revere the flow.


Noa Yaari, Untitled, 2013
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