Media @ McGill

Cornelius Borck: A journey across disciplinary boundaries



Media@McGill's Dr. Cornelius Borck, Canada Research Chair in Philosophy and Language of Medicine, is leaving in the coming months to pursue an exciting new challenge as Professor of the History, Theory and Ethics of Medicine and Science, and as director of the Institute for the History of Science and Medicine, at the University of Lübeck. In the following article, he reflects - with typical generosity - on his time at McGill and the pleasures of working in our field. Good luck, Cornelius, and thank you!

When I arrived at McGill three years ago, I knew very little about the Department of Art History and Communication Studies. Friends of mine in Social Studies of Medicine had invited me to apply to a job that came as a bridging CRC, connecting the Faculties of Medicine and Arts, and hence required me to pick a second home in Arts. I came from a faculty of media (at Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany) where my research group had aimed at establishing history of science in relation to media theory and art history. I simply had the vague idea that McGill's Department of Art History and Communication Studies would be the best fit. In addition, Social Studies of Medicine had already several ties to the History Department and there was no point in making one more.

I had heard rumours about an expansion of the programme in Communication Studies but this truly came as surprise when I arrived. I still remember the excitement at a one-day retreat in August 2004 where I met my new colleagues and where the first plans for Media@McGill were conspired. I found myself resuming an academic life on the other side of the Atlantic right at the moment of major innovations. Many years earlier, in the summer of 1989, I had arrived in Berlin to finish my studies, not knowing the city would explode within weeks, forcing the GDR to implode and me to spend the following year debating politics.

My comparison might insinuate that there was a wall between art history and communication studies to be torn down; quite the contrary, from the very beginning I was fascinated by the free exchange across disciplinary boundaries. The recently heightened interest in media and visual culture provided from the beginning sufficient overlap between the two streams in the Department, and this overlap continues to be inspiring for many of us here. But equally important is, in my view, the relative independence of our two programmes in terms of disciplinary coherence and the training of our students. AHCS is neither the home of vague interdisciplinary studies nor the reduction of art history and communications to visual culture. It is precisely the tension between our disciplinary and individual specializations and the interest across these divisions that makes the exchange productive and personally rewarding.

It may well be that this combination of art history and communications is especially appealing to me because I come, as a historian of science, from yet another disciplinary perspective and AHCS simply allows me to connect in two different directions which are both of equal importance for my work. The first concerns my focus on visualization. With no undergraduate programme in communications in place when I arrived, I jumped on the opportunity to teach a course on scientific visualization to art history students who bring their expertise in the description and analysis of images. McGill's extraordinarily rich collection of pertinent historical books in the Osler Library made this course enormous fun. The other direction AHCS afforded me to elaborate on was my interest in the conceptual borderlands between media theory and historical epistemology. From Bodies & Machines to Cybernetics in Context, I gained a lot from the continuing discussions with excellent students and I feel extremely happy about the opportunity to teach them.

When I now look back upon three years at McGill, I realize how valuable they were for developing my research further into new media art and cultural studies of science. Important ingredients of this intellectual environment were both, local initiatives such as the extremely lively programme in history of philosophy of science, the artists one can so easily exchange with at the SAT or the Oboro, or the CCA and FDL with their impressive collections and friendly curators, but also the renewed interest in science studies on a national level as documented, for example, by the recent award of a massive SSHRC cluster grant. So, I leave McGill and Canada at a moment of great prospects, but I do so looking forward to continuing collaborations via some of these avenues.

Cornelius Borck, May 2007


To read Dr. Borck's papers, Vision Engineering and Mind and Brain in Weimar Culture, please download the attachments below.