There’s a section in this 1997 chapter by Roger Burrows which my thoughts have been intermittently turning to since reading it last week. On pg 235 he writes:
It is not just technology which appears to be accelerating towards meltdown, so are our cultural and sociological understandings of the world. The speed at which new theoretical discourses emerge, are disseminated and then become passé is now absurd. It is almost as if the second that one begins to engage with some new conceptual development it becomes unfashionable. The recent literature on things ‘cyber’ is a case in point. Reading it makes the latest pile of books on the postmodern, globalisation, reflexive modernisation (last year’s model?) and the like appear mellow and quaint. Never mind who now reads Marx? or even Foucault? Who now reads Baudrillard?
This process of sociological passéification is, of course, not unconnected with ‘fin-demillennium’ pessimism and our general loss of visions of utopian transcendence and hope in a better future. Our inability to adequately account for our changing world in sociological terms has led, not just to an ontological insecurity but to ever more frantic attempts to provide some sort of sociological frame for a constantly moving target. In the recent conceptual scramble some analysts have begun to turn to sources of inspiration beyond traditional social scientific and political discourses in order to try and make some sort of sense of our contemporary condition. In particular the fictional world of cyberpunk has been seized on by some as a resource of analytic insights into the new dimensions of human, or even post-human existence, which are supposedly now upon us.
It suggests that intellectual faddishness is something explained by the character of reality itself, as a “constantly moving target” provokes “ever more frantic attempts” to “provide some sort of sociological frame”. It struck me when reading this how clearly the themes of the coming crisis of empirical sociology are prefigured here: is a descriptive turn something which facilitates an escape from this acceleration of theory? I’ve always found this unsatisfying, aspiring instead to a social theory able to handle the pace of social change.
However the normalisation of intellectual change taking place at this pace makes this increasingly difficult, establishing career strategies predicated on capturing the intellectual attention space through the production of novelty. Though such novelty always rests on a relative judgement, inevitably compared to what immediately preceded it rather than the full stock of theoretical propositions which are in principle available.