From structure to rhizome: transdisciplinarity in French thought

Introduction to the dossier 'From structure to rhizome: transdisciplinarity in French thought' (RP 165/167)

RP 165 () / Article, Dossier, From structure to rhizome: transdisciplinarity in French thought

The concept of transdisciplinarity is not part of the explicit discourse or self-consciousness of ‘French thought’. Rather, it is used here, imported from the outside as a kind of operator or problematizing device, to begin a process of rethinking one of that body of thought’s most distinctive but infrequently remarked upon characteristics – its tendency to move fluidly across disciplinary fields and modes of knowledge – and thereby also to rethink some of its main ideas.

Unexamined transdisciplinary dynamics motivate and energize many of the ‘great books’ of postwar European theory. In France one can point emblematically to Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), the first volume of Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason: Practical Ensembles (1960), Lévi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind (1962), Foucault’s Words and Things, Derrida’s Writing and Difference and Lacan’s Écrits (each 1966) and Deleuze and Guattari’s two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972, 1980). Al lare books that cross disciplines with a confidence and facility that belie the complexity of the exchanges between the disciplinary knowledges upon which they are built ­– in often widely differing and unstated ways. And all have productive but problematic relationships to the varieties of systematic orientation (including anti-systems) that characterize the post-Kantian European philosophical tradition, raising the question of the proto-philosophical character of transdisciplinarity itself.

One way to approach this situation would be to focus on the singularities of such canonical texts as literary works. Another, adopted here, is to approach them via the most general concepts that they construct, and to inquire into the genealogy and trans-disciplinary functioning of these concepts: ‘structure’, of course, and its place within work that was later called ‘post-structuralist’; but also existentialism (whose death was prematurely announced), within which the rethinking of the concept ‘sex’ associated with Western feminism has its philosophical beginnings; along with ideas associated with tendencies that do not fit so neatly into such boxes – like ‘network’; and those that are simply too general to be usefully pegged to particular texts or even bodies of theoretical writing, such as ‘science’.

The ‘entries’ presented below stake out some ground for rethinking these concepts from a transdisciplinary standpoint. By way of introduction to such a project (of which this is just one part of a small national sample – a second part of the sample will follow later in 2011), it may be useful to set out something of the thinking about transdisciplinarity that stands behind it. In particular, it is necessary to make clear what is not intended by the term ‘transdisciplinarity’ in this context, although the unintended usage must nonethe- less be engaged if the current institutional conditions of knowledge-production are to be acknowledged.