Pause… How art and literature can transform transdisciplinary research

By Jane Palmer and Dena Fam

1. Jane Palmer (biography)
2. Dena Fam (biography)

What might make us stop and think differently about the ways in which we interact with our environment and others, human and nonhuman? What kind of knowing about acute threats to the natural environment will sufficiently motivate action?

We suggest that art and literature can offer us a pause in which we might, firstly, imagine other less anthropocentric ways of being in the world, and secondly, a way into Basarab Nicolescu’s “zone of non-resistance” (2014, p. 192), where we become truly open to new transdisciplinary forms of collaboration.

Writers, artists and scholars have canvassed many ways of ‘pausing’ our accustomed thought processes: mindfulness and ‘mindwandering’, and solitude, as well as post-representational research, which is sensory, affective and exploratory. We are interested particularly in the kind of ‘pause’ that constitutes a transformative experience that changes our relations with others, human and nonhuman.

Saul Bellow’s claim that beautiful writing can “carry us into a state of intransitive attention” (1995/2019, p. 180), and Deborah Bird Rose’s conception of her writing as “pulling readers into an ethical proximity” with events (2013, p. 9), suggest a movement or shift in the reader that changes their place in, and hence their perspective on, the world. This is one way in which literature differs from other works such as reports, journalism and academic papers. In wandering – becoming ‘lost’ – in the writer’s world, we briefly cease to be the principal actor but are carried, drawn or jolted into a different, less (self)centred place.

The need for such a shift in perspective is most evident in transdisciplinary work, which deals with different and potentially incommensurable ways of knowing. Transdisciplinary collaboration requires its practitioners to enter “a new place … where they become open to others’ perspectives, ideologies, value premises, and belief systems” (McGregor and Donnelly, 2014, p. 173), which is another way of describing Nicolescu’s “zone of non-resistance.” Tanya Augsburg (2014, pp. 240, 242) follows Ananta Giri (2002, pp. 112-113) in suggesting that transdisciplinary collaboration requires “cultivation of the art of abandonment”. Anita Pipere and Francesca Lorenzi note that “[o]pening up in dialogue means choosing to make oneself vulnerable in such a way that could result in [losing] one’s self” (2021, p. 568).

The ‘pause’ induced by art and literature may open us up to changed relationships with others. These changes include the decentring of the human, seen by many scholars and activists as an essential shift in worldview, especially towards sustainability. For those working in such fields as animal geographies and the environmental humanities, the art of suspending or abandoning conceptual certainties and of decentring the self is part of the (un)learning required to consider and care about more-than-human agents: “As ethologists and ethnographers are coming to appreciate, attuning to animal cultures involves parallel processes of learning to be affected which develop differently in disciplines …. Interdisciplinary capacity and collaboration requires a respectful appreciation of the potential of these different modes of calibration. This stems from a commitment to the reality of the world, an uncertainty about what it will do and a humble willingness to put one’s knowledge at risk in the process of learning to be affected by the phenomena under investigation” (Lorimer, 2010, p. 502).

Openness to what Jennifer Wolch has described as the “standpoints” of the nonhuman (1998, p. 124), as well as knowledges from across academic disciplines and society, is critical in addressing the most complex challenges facing us today. However university silos that separate the arts and humanities from the sciences and social sciences constrict many researchers’ opportunities to learn about the role that art and literature can play in opening up their own explorations. Without exposure to other subversive and immersive imaginaries, even transdisciplinary researchers can continue to generate outputs that remain within existing conceptual frameworks.

What kind of knowing will motivate us to make change (Nassar, 2021)? Could art and literature step between us and our accustomed perspectives? Might they enable us to see the agency and aliveness of the other, and the possibility of other, even incommensurate, knowledges? Could they help us to engage in the border work necessary to developing a transdisciplinary response to issues of sustainability and social justice? Do you have stories of the transformational effects of art or literature on your own thinking and research?

To find out more:

Palmer, J. and Fam, D. (2022), Taking pause: The role of art and literature in reimagining human-nonhuman relations and transdisciplinary collaboration, World Futures. (Online) (DOI):


Augsburg, T. (2014). Becoming transdisciplinary: The emergence of the transdisciplinary individual. World Futures, 70, 3-4: 233-247. (Online) (DOI):

Bellow, S. (1995/2019). The distracted public (Romanes Lecture, Oxford University 10 May 1990). In, S. Bellow, It all adds up: From the dim past to the uncertain future, Penguin: New York, United States of America, pp. 164-181.

Giri, A. K. (2002). The calling of a creative transdisciplinarity. Futures, 34: 103-115.

Lorimer, J. (2010). Elephants as companion species: The lively biogeographies of Asian elephant conservation in Sri Lanka. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35, 4: 491-506.

McGregor, S. L. T. and Donnelly, G. (2014). Transleadership for transdisciplinary initiatives. World Futures, 70, 3-4: 164-185, (Online) (DOI):

Nassar, D. (2021). Shallow and deep collaboration: Art, ecology and Alexander von Humboldt. Iain McCalman Lecture, 3 February 2021, University of Sydney: Sydney, Australia. (Online – open access):

Nicolescu, B. (2014). Methodology of transdisciplinarity. World Futures, 70, 3-4: 186-199. (Online) (DOI):

Pipere, A. and Lorenzi, F. (2021). The dialogical potential of transdisciplinary research: Challenges and benefits. World Futures, 77, 8: 559-590. (Online) (DOI):

Rose, D. B. (2013). Slowly ~ writing into the Anthropocene. TEXT, 20 (Special Issue – Writing Creates Ecology and Ecology Creates Writing): 1-14. (Online – open access): (PDF 186KB).

Wolch, J. (1998). Zoöpolis. In, J. Wolch and J. Emel (Eds.), Animal geographies: Place, politics, and identity in the nature-culture borderlands, Verso: London, United Kingdom, pp. 119-138.

Biography: Jane Palmer PhD is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Southern Queensland and an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, both in Australia. Her research interests include the use of storytelling methods as a way of conducting transdisciplinary research into the processes of trauma, grief, resilience and adaptation.

Biography: Dena Fam PhD is an Adjunct Associate Professor at University of Technology, Sydney and Senior Research Manager at the Greater Cities Commission in New South Wales, both in Australia. Her research and consultancy experience has spanned the socio-cultural (learning for sustainability), institutional (policy analysis), and technological aspects of environmental management. She has been involved in developing processes, methods, and formats for transdisciplinary educational programs and research projects.

7 thoughts on “Pause… How art and literature can transform transdisciplinary research”

  1. The characteristic “pause” reminds me of the Greek word “απορία (aporía)” and the associated learning traditions back then.

    I also like the comment on the constriction between arts & humanities and applied & natural sciences. I wonder if and how the “department-free” practice at some institutions may help address this issue. For me, this looks like pushing for “wider” interdisciplinarity which is perhaps a new domain of measurability for interdisciplinarity.

    • This raises an interesting point – thank you! We wanted to propose that exposure to art and literature can help us to decentre ourselves and hence be more open to other perspectives and forms of knowledge. This may or may not be part of a transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary process – I guess taking the same line of argument as those who propose that everyone should have a broad ‘liberal arts’ education before specialising. However as you point out, it could also be an argument for an extended form of interdisciplinarity and associated assessment criteria.
      Love the point about aporia!

  2. Thank you for this terrific post reminding us of the value of art and literature in thinking across disciplinary boundaries. I wonder how much this is about the experiment of the form (e.g. all the varied types of art forms), and how much it is about being primed for open mindedness when we approach art and literature. Also no surprise that many people have their first experiences of cultures/languages other than their own through art/literature/music.

    • Interesting point Alexandra! I wonder whether the role and importance our culture(s) give to art affect how we approach it as well. Art may be seen in some cultures as a way of maintaining the past in the present, and constructing the future, which would give it a different significance from the shock or awakening value that the West often claims for it…

  3. Many thanks for this valuable contribution! I am particularly intrigued by Nicolescu’s “zone of non-resistance” which I had not heard of before. The concept speaks to me because in transdisciplinary research crossing social and technoscientific disciplines we often experience resistance (on both sides) to go along with other disciplinary values, epistemologies and even ontologies. While reading literature, however, we can easily immerse ourselves in a different world. This insight, which is nicely put in your post, is very important for the transdisciplinary tech project that I am currently working on because it emphasizes the relevance of including a professional fiction writer in our team. We plan a series of scenario workshops in the project to reflect on the potential future impacts (including technomoral changes) that the new technology developed here may have. I think that the scenarios coming out of these workshops should be written in the format of short stories that allow all project partners to get immersed into alternative futures so as to enter a zone of non-resistance for further reflection on what we do here and now.

    • Thanks for this interesting feedback Mareike. While we were wanting to draw attention to the value of art and literature more broadly as a way of entering a ‘zone of non-resistance’, it follows that literary writing would enhance the immersive and imaginative impacts of scenarios. Would be very interested to hear about the impact of your approach!


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