Overproduction as mass existentialism

Earlier this year, I observed that there are two kinds of scholarly overproduction, “herd” overproduction and “star” overproduction. I’d like to come back to that line of thought to push it a bit farther.

I previously argued that if academic overproduction is in many ways market-like we might want to push for a better regulated market in knowledge. I suggested that this could be a complementary strategy to the usual denunciations of market forms in academic life. There is nothing the matter with critiques of market forms, I will stress again; but for all that, they need not be the end point of our thinking.

Continuing that line of thought, I’m wondering whether mass overproduction of academic knowledge may not have some unexpected effects. Its most obvious effect, of course, is the massive amount of “waste knowledge” it generates — the papers that are never read (or barely), citation for its own sake, prolixity for institutional or career reasons, pressures to publish half-finished or mediocre work, etc. All of these are the seemingly “bad” effects of mass overproduction.

But does mass overproduction have any clearly good effects? I like to imagine that one day, machine learning will advance to the point where all the unread scholarly papers of the early 21st century will become accessible to new syntheses, new forms of searching, and so on. We don’t know how our unread work might be used in the future; perhaps it will be a useful archive for someone.

More immediately, I’m also wondering if mass overproduction is creating new forms of self-consciousness in the present. In Anglophone cultural anthropology, it seems to me that mass overproduction is forcing us to constantly ask “what is at stake here?” Older scholarship seldom needed to ask itself that question, as far as I can tell, and certainly not routinely, with every article published. It became common, somewhere along the way, to ask, “so what?”

As one crude measure of this, I checked how often the literal phrase “what is at stake” co-appeared with “anthropology” in works indexed by Google Scholar, dividing up by decade (1951-2010). What I found out is that this exact phrase occurred last decade in 14,600 out of 853,000 scholarly works in anthropology. (Or at least matching the keyword “anthropology.”) This comes to 1.71% of anthropological scholarship published last decade. Obviously, 1.71% is not a large percentage, but what’s important as a barometer of tendencies in the field is that the percentage has risen considerably since the 1950s. Back in 1951-1960, only 35 publications mentioned “what is at stake” (0.2% of the 17,300 works published that decade).

Here’s the data:

                          Hits incl.  Percent
               Hits for   "what is    incl.
Decade         Anthro     at stake"   "at stake"
1951-1960      17300      35          0.20%
1961-1970      37700      160         0.42%
1971-1980      89900      480         0.53%
1981-1990      198000     1480        0.75%
1991-2000      609000     5860        0.96%
2001-2010      853000     14600       1.71%

Growth since   49.3x      417.1x      8.5x

Put another way, there was 49 times more anthropology published in 2001-2010 than in 1951-1960, but the expression “what is at stake” was used 417 times more often in 2001-2010 than in 1951-1960, thereby growing a bit more than 8 times as fast as the field in general. Google Scholar’s crude keyword search is too imprecise to measure how much work actually discusses what is at stake one way or another, but I expect that a more sophisticated linguistic analysis would show similar patterns over time.

So. Let’s say it’s true that cultural anthropologists now talk about “what is at stake” much more than they used to. The standard explanation for this is basically cultural and political. Cultural anthropologists are just much more self-conscious than they used to be, or so the story goes. They’re attuned to the politics of their representations. They’ve had to ask themselves about the relationship between their theories and colonial regimes. They no longer write under the assumption that producing objective knowledge is possible or even desirable. That’s what many of my colleagues would say, I think.

There’s plenty of truth there. But I wonder whether the sheer fact of overproduction – the massive flood of publications, the massive pressure to publish, the fact that we are not just a small village where everyone knows each other – may not also contribute to a sort of routinization of existential crisis. After all, if we are in a massive market of knowledge and attention that’s driven by the pressure to constantly produce, it stands to reason that the value of our product is constantly under scrutiny. I think that that’s partly what the “stakes” question reveals: an assumption that, until proven otherwise, our epistemic product has no value.

On some level, it is of course ridiculous to constantly have to prove that something major is at stake in every article, because when one is in a system of mass production, it is illogical to demand that the mass-produced part be singular, or even distinctly valuable. On the bright side, this massive existential focus on “the stakes” does help puncture an older generation’s dogma that scholarship is intrinsically virtuous. Existential self-doubt is a healthy thing, in some measure.

The downside, though, is that this focus on the stakes can oblige us to constantly exaggerate the value of our work— if only in order to get published and to attract readers. When everyone has to declare the great stakes of their scholarly products, this opens up a vast new space for self-promotional hyperbole. One might conclude, then, that mass overproduction can produce new forms of existential self-consciousness and self-scrutiny; but ironically, this existential awareness can itself readily become a new self-marketing opportunity.