Ghosts of Sociologists Past in the Accelerated Academy

I’m currently reading Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures by Mark Fisher. It’s an interesting book which explores a condition in which “life continues, but time has somehow stopped”. His claim is that this “stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement” and he explores it in terms of popular musical culture:

Nowhere is this clearer than in popular music culture. It was through the mutations of popular music that many of those of us who grew up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s learned to measure the passage of cultural time. But faced with 21st-century music, it is the very sense of future shock which has disappeared. This is quickly established by performing a simple thought experiment. Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next 17 years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be. While 20th-century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. (loc 183)

Can we see a similar process in higher education? The way Fisher describe the hyperactively inert quality of contemporary music immediately resonated with me: “the rates of innovation in both these areas had enormously slackened”. This is precisely the terminology Filip Vostal and I have been using to discuss the acceleration of higher education: we’re interested in how the rate of innovation relates to the rate of publication. Our hunch is that the former declines as the latter increases. We’d like to substantiate this. But perhaps more importantly, we’d like to explain it.

What would this hyperactive inertia look like in higher education? We’d see the same underlying ideas being expressed in news ways. We’d see the same underlying debates – conflicts between ideas – being pursued in new forms with no reference to previous skirmishes which largely or entirely addressed the same issue. We’d see reiteration that understood itself as novelty – making no reference to what has come before because the temporal horizons are sufficiently circumscribed that this novelty appears to unfold within a perpetual present. We’d see a perpetual forgetting coupled with perpetual innovation: nothing moves forward because the foundations upon which innovation might be built would be constantly discarded.

I’d argue we can see this. It’s a process that seems pretty obvious to anyone who’s kept up with academic literature over a sufficient number of decades (or maybe it’s just the people in this category whom I happen to talk to a lot). Part of the project we’re planning would intend to actually map this empirically. But the indicators are pretty clear: conceptual commonalities between referentially disconnected literatures, shrinking time horizons of citations, constant invocation of ‘turns’ in the name of innovation. Constant movement without anything ever progressing.

What makes this odd is how unnecessary it is. Since I started working at the Sociological Review, I’ve been slightly obsessed by the fact that the archive extends to 1908 and is fully digitised. It’s as easy to access a paper from 1915 as it is to access a paper from 2015. I’ve gone around telling anyone who might care about this in a way that extends far beyond any remit arising from the fact I’m employed by the journal. This fetishisation of the past is exactly what I take Mark Fisher to be concerned with – I’ve been hugely enthusiastic about these archives without ever seriously engaging with them. Crudely: I think it’s really cool that they are accessible but I’m not really sure why I think this. As Fisher observes, “it seemed that practically everything was available for re-watching. In conditions of digital recall, loss is itself lost” (loc 105). There’s no technical reason for this loss of the sociological past but this seems to make little practical different, suggesting that the reasons for this loss have very little to do with technological capacity. This recent post by Graham Scambler identified one of the core reasons for this forgetting:

There is now a premium on roller-coaster productivity pertinent to crass metrics like the REF. To (appear to) stand still is to attract opprobrium, too often from line-managers as crass(ly ambitious) as the metrics they bend the knee to. We are fast accelerating away from the concept of education as intrinsically worthwhile. Education in its entirely needs defending against the bureaucratic instrumentalism characteristic of this vicious neo-liberal interlude.

The broader perspective of social acceleration helps situation this institutionally specific trend in terms of broader macro-social processes. But it’s important not to lose sight of the institutional specificity of higher education. I like how Graham describes the dilemma for scholarship posed by what I’m suggesting is the acceleration of higher education:

we already possess a considerable and under-utilized body of work, both theoretical and empirical (and yes, empiricist too). While the need for innovative theorizing and for up-to-date or novel data and analyses remains, there are published warehouses of the stuff that we neglect. It would pay us to tap and reflect on these. It really is okay to relearn lessons from dead social theorists, sociologists and researchers!

Much of my own recent output – mainly publications, but a few blogs too – comes within the orbit of meta-reflection. This is especially true of my work on health inequalities, but it applies also to my discourses on stigma. I have attempted to draw on and occasionally to develop extant theory as well as quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods investigations to explore optimal ways of determining the extent and nature of, and ultimately explanations for, enduring health inequalities and stigmatization. I have staked claims for theory that is in my view consonant with available evidence bases. I am of course deeply indebted to innumerable predecessors and contemporaries!

It’s for this reason that I think questions of scholarly communication are integral to the future of the social sciences. But my reasons for believing this to the case are somewhat idiosyncratic. This is another theme which we’re hoping to explore in our project (and at the conference we’re organising in Prague in December). There’s a big picture here that is getting lost because of the very academic specialisation it has some important consequences for.

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