The challenge of writing in the accelerated academy, part 2

The upwards trajectory of publication poses an obvious problem for the aspiring academic. It is one familiar from other fields of cultural production. How to be heard above the din? If ever more publications are being produced each year, commanding ever less attention from a peer group increasingly consumed by the imperative to publish, vast rewards are liable to be gained by those able to capture the intellectual attention space. This situation can incite great aspirations, something Liz Morrish has written about in terms of the rise of the ‘Trump academic’:

Equally, in a world where academics are obliged to offer up each piece of work to be evaluated as internationally significant, world leading etc., they will seek to signal such a rating discursively. A study by Vinkers et al. in the British Medical Journal uncovered a new tendency towards hyperbole in scientific reports. They found the absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), which amounts to a relative increase of 880% over four decades. 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15 000%”). The authors comment upon an apparent evolution in scientific writing to ‘look on the bright side of life’.

Bullshit proliferates under these circumstances. Metricised evaluation demands the performance of ‘excellence’, something to be enacted through the ritualistic assertion of innovation and the sustained quest to ensure it is demonstrable in narrow metricised terms. Capturing the attention of one’s peers demands big, bold and memorable claims, preferably ones that break with what has gone before and position oneself as the start of something new. Each innovation heralds the recruitment of potential followers. After all, each piece of work holds the promise of being the start of something big.

But as Randall Collins has convincingly argued, there can only be so many viable positions within the intellectual attention space. Most innovations, in the entrepreneurial sense undertaken by the Trump academic, remain doomed to fail. For the self-confident and upwardly mobile aspiring star this failure is nothing but a challenge. After all, failure is in keeping with the spirit of the age. Move fast and break things. If today’s innovation doesn’t catch hold, throw something else against the wall and continue to do so until it finally sticks.

One of the most frequently used devices in the humanities and social sciences to perform such ‘innovation’ is the invocation of the turn. When I went counting a few years ago, I found 47, but there are certainly more:

  1. the linguistic turn
  2. the cultural turn
  3. the affective turn
  4. the sensory turn
  5. the reflexive turn
  6. the digital turn
  7. the participatory turn
  8. the narrative turn
  9. the biographical turn
  10. the spatial turn
  11. the social turn
  12. the interpretive turn
  13. the ontological turn
  14. the postmodern turn
  15. the practice turn
  16. the pragmatic turn
  17. the historical turn
  18. the discursive turn
  19. the cognitive turn
  20. the critical turn
  21. the computational turn
  22. the transnational turn
  23. the emotional turn
  24. the practical turn
  25. the neuroscientific turn
  26. the complexity turn
  27. the nonhuman turn
  28. the ethical turn
  29. the argumentative turn
  30. the action turn
  31. the animal turn
  32. the gender turn
  33. the constructivist turn
  34. the somatic turn
  35. the pictorial turn
  36. the auditory turn
  37. the communicative turn
  38. the dialogic turn
  39. the global turn
  40. the semiotic turn
  41. the theoretical turn
  42. the cosmopolitan turn
  43. the relational turn
  44. the naturalist turn
  45. the material turn (via Jesse in comments)
  46. the temporal turn (via martin eve)
  47. the insect turn (via martin eve)

A turn is a claim about orientation. To invoke a turn plays off the authority of others while positioning oneself as leading the group in a new direction. But the limitations of the attention space obtain here as well. Most turns are doomed to failure. Likely to be ignored, rather than even marginalised. Or perhaps to be reiterated endlessly, with each new ‘turn’ largely or entirely ignorant of that which has gone before.

These discursive strategies for career advancement would merely be annoying if they didn’t have such harmful aggregative consequences. The discipline beset by turns is the discipline which is in chaos. Turn! Turn! Turn! Constantly spinning round and round, called forth in all directions while being vaguely aware of countless others calling for one’s attention if only they could cut through the thickets of busyness and anxiety, the outlines of the knowledge system become ever more foggy. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? For the trump academics, the answer is simple: we/I are promoting ourselves and trying to ensure our upwards mobility by capturing the intellectual attention space as efficiently as possible while performing in a way that meets the ever changing demands placed upon us by managers and their metrics.

What about for everyone else? It becomes decreasingly possible to undertake serious intellectual work outside of often insular communities of practice. A self-serving conservatism afflicts the major journals which are the cyphers of established quality in so far as anything remains conclusively ‘established’ beyond the brute facts of institutional power and well-honed networks. A pragmatic eclecticism afflicts the minor journals, as they provide shelter for those seeking some kind of communal focus from the incessant attempts to claim the spotlight that proliferate throughout ever more disorganised disciplines. This system of scholarly communication intensifies the trend towards our working in what Billig (pg 5) describes as “smaller and smaller circles”. When this happens, we lose any sense of the centre. Perhaps the centre was always in some sense imagined. But relations with proximate rivals to our own academic tribes take on the appearance of existential disputes over the soul of a shared project. Our imaginations contract and this invariably finds reflection in thought and expression.

If the career strategies of the Trump academics are at the root of this. If they represent what I’ve elsewhere taken to calling ‘distraction engines’, socio-technical mechanisms actively serving to hinder the capacity for sustained focus of other actors, we need to delegitimise them. We need to stop taking ‘turn’ talk seriously. But we also need to recognise how we ourselves are implicated in this process. See what I did earlier in the paragraph? I’ve introduced a concept, ‘distraction engines’, on one level useful to me but on another one offered in the hope it might prove catchy. The same criticism can be directed at the notion of the ‘accelerated academy’ itself. I find it disturbingly hard not to do this and the reflexive challenge it poses for me is to justify it. In these cases, because the new term performs some function that alternatives might not. A claim I’m willing to defend about ‘accelerated academy’ but not, perhaps, about ‘distraction engines’.

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