I was just looking up how to spell the adjective “Comaroffian” when I came upon a paper by Charles Piot about the Comaroffs’ Of Revolution and Revelation. Skimming through it, I happened upon an amusing couple of paragraphs that set out to summarize different theories of “modernity.” In case anyone wants to see what that looks like, here they are:
Sometime earlier this spring I asked the students in my Digital Cultures class to each write down a sentence (on a post-it) about what education was for.
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?”
I’ve been thinking about certain scholars who have written, for lack of a more precise way of putting it, a lot. The sort of people who seem to write a book a year for thirty years. I don’t necessarily mean scholars in, say, the laboratory sciences, but more like the humanists, the anthropologists, the philosophers. Today a post by Brian Leiter quoting a caustic review of the prolific scholar Steve Fuller reminded me of the topic.
If one description of scholarly activity is “producing knowledge,” then logically, wouldn’t we expect that there would be such a thing as “overproducing knowledge”? Can there be an overproduction crisis of scholarship?
I’ve written before about the curious state of academic boredom. Lately, I’ve been reading Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, and was struck by his comments on boredom in traditional French church services:
The rhythm is slow. The audience is bored to tears by the respectful abstraction of it all. Religion will end in boredom, and to offer boredom to the Lord is hardly a living sacrifice. (Yet as I write these lines, I wonder if I’m not making a crude mistake. Magic has always gone hand in hand with emotion, hope and terror, and still does. But are there such things as religious ’emotions’? Probably no more than there is a ‘psychological state’ – consciousness or thought without an object – that could be called ‘faith’. These are ideological fictions. Surely religion, like theology, metaphysics, ceremonies, academic literature and official poets, has always been boring. This has never been a hindrance, because one of the aims of ‘spiritual’ discipline and asceticism has always been precisely to disguise and to transfigure this living boredom…)
(Vol. 1, p. 220-21. English translation by John Moore, Verso, 1991.)
A million things to write, most of them still inchoate. But in the meantime I’ve been reading more articles about critical pedagogy and one of them is by Jane Tompkins. “Pedagogy of the Distressed,” it’s called, in College English from 1990. She comments at one point on her long inattention to her own pedagogy, and on what she views as academia’s distaste for education as a discipline:
“In this respect teaching was exactly like sex for me — something that you weren’t supposed to talk about or focus on in any way but that you were supposed to be able to do properly when the time came. And the analogy doesn’t end there. Teaching, like sex, is something you do alone, although you’re always with another person/other people when you do it; it’s hard to talk about to the other person while you’re doing it, especially if you’ve been taught not to think about it from an early age. And people rarely talk about what the experience is really like for them, partly because, in whatever subculture it is I belong to, there’s no vocabulary for articulating the experience and no institutionalized format for doing so.”
According to a hilarious article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, “a troop of 80 to 100 of [rhesus macaque] monkeys have terrorized the campus [of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences] for several years, entering waiting rooms, biting people, and grabbing food from patients and visitors.” Apparently the administrators have tried to have them caught, but unsuccessfully; and have tried to frighten them away with other monkeys, but that hasn’t worked either. And the article concludes on an even darker note:
As if the monkeys weren’t bad enough, a new problem recently visited itself upon the institute: stray dogs that attack doctors returning to their dorms late at night. A letter of complaint from the institute’s faculty association says the dogs run through the teaching block, the wards, and the operating theaters. “The excreta can be seen all over, all the time,” the letter says. “It is the worst possible start to the day.”