This interesting aside in Jamie Woodcock’s superb Working The Phones is worthy of further discussion. From loc 2698:

Researchers often attribute a level of importance to their own research that is not shared by others, assuming that because they spend so much time on it others will want to know all about it too.

How does this attitude develop? How widespread is it? How is it connected to how people see their occupational roles? 

My hunch is that it’s absolutely central to academic exceptionalism: the notion that academic labour is intrinsically different to other forms of labour. The (self) importance of the scholarship goes hand-in-hand with a mystification of the conditions under which their scholarship is enacted.

In the nine years since I first entered a Sociology department, I’ve had a deep interest in academic writing that has only increased with time. In my past life as a philosophy student, writing had never occurred to me as a topic of intellectual interest. Despite having once aspired to be a writer before concluding that I wasn’t good enough at writing political polemics to stand much chance of joining that small class of people who write them for a living. This self-critical concern with the quality (or otherwise) of my writing has perhaps been more of an animating force than I’ve tended to admit to myself. But the other driver was the inspiration I derived from ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship’, the appendix to The Sociological Imagination, the first book I read as a Sociology postgraduate. As Mills puts it on pg 217-218:

I know you will agree that you should present your work in as clear and simple language as your subject and your thought about it permit. But as you may have noticed, a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences … Such lack of ready intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status.

I’m fascinated by what sociological writing can reveal because of where it sits at the intersection between sociologists, sociology, higher education and the wider world. In such writing we find an (often unintended) disclosure of sociologists, the discipline they have been socialised into, its status within the wider academy and their conditions of labour within it. All while purporting to be an examination of the world ‘out there’. In fact, it’s through concern for how we can produce knowledge of this world, as well as put it to work in changing that world, that it becomes imperative to address writing in a diagnostic mode. How does actually existing sociological writing impede knowledge production? Can we strive to ameliorate these pernicious effects? As Andrew Sayer has put it, the alienated writing of social scientists reflects their own alienation. In addressing one, we unavoidably encounter the other.

One of the most striking things about contemporary scholarly writing is how obviously rushed some of it is. We can read this back from quantitative measures, looking at the increasing rate at which individuals publish, as well as the aggregate growth of publications as a whole. Though there are other factors at work (e.g. digital technology offering time savings in the writing and research process) the basic trend is clearly one of acceleration. We can recognise it qualitatively in a lack of innovation across publications and the well-recognised tendency towards ‘salami slicing’. But as Michael Billig points out in his Learn to Write Badly, we can also recognise it in the texts themselves. From pg 133:

The trouble is that the specialists do not handle their big nouns with care, but they rush to use them, knocking over verbs in their haste and barging other parts of speech out of the way. In their rush, they fail to tie the big words firmly to the grounds of human actions, leave them flapping loosely, but flamboyantly, in the wind.

Rushing does not create this tendency towards vague, grandiose and depersonalised language. As this interview with Howard Becker rather beautifully illustrates, we can find intellectual roots for these tendencies in the world views of prominent and influential theorists:

“Bourdieu’ s big idea was the champs, field, and mine was monde, world—what’s the difference?” Becker asks rhetorically. “Bourdieu’s idea of field is kind of mystical. It’s a metaphor from physics. I always imagined it as a zero-sum game being played in a box. The box is full of little things that zing around. And he doesn’t speak about people. He just speaks about forces. There aren’t any people doing anything.” People in Bourdieu’s field are merely atom-like entities. (It was Bourdieu’s vision that helped inspire Michel Houellebecq’s nihilistic novel of the meaningless collisions of modern life, “The Elementary Particles.”) …

As Becker has written elsewhere, enlarging the end-credits metaphor, “A ‘world’ as I understand it consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. . . . The resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.”

But we can find the conditions within which these ways of writing and speaking propagate in the academy itself (as as a corollary, in the work of the great theorists themselves). One thing I’d like to explore much further with the Accelerated Academy project is how we can use tempo as a way to understand the organisational influences upon scholarly writing. Billig rather persuasively diagnoses how the intensification of academic labour, particularly in relation to securing a position when facing competition on all sides, incentivises self-promotional writing. This is how do things, it’s better than how they do things, join my club. But in reality, most of us are likely to join someone’s else club… taking shelter from the cold winds of an organisation undergoing rapid deprofessionalisation by huddling together around a camp fire of shared certainties (not to mention opportunities for networking, publication and engagement). I was struck by the contrast Billig draws between how a figure like Foucault innovated and the contemporary realities of scholarship. From pg 148:

There is something very old-fashioned about Foucault’s lectures to the Collège de France. It is not just that he cites obscure writers from the early modern period and that he presents no ‘literature reviews’, in which he positions his own work in relation to the approaches of his contemporaries. His lectures were lectures: he did not seem eager to rush them into print to boost his tally of publications. Nor did he place key lectures –such as that on ‘governmentality’ –in influential sociological journals. Instead, he addressed his audience directly. And most importantly, he addressed them as individuals, who might be interested in his ideas, rather than as potential academic producers whom he wishes to recruit to a new mode of enquiry. In this regard, Foucault was not a Foucauldian, spreading the Foucauldian message and seeking to promote a Foucauldian subdiscipline.

It reminded of David Graeber’s argument about the dead zones of the imagination in higher education. Has rampant scholasticism coupled with inane managerialism destroyed the conditions under which the objects of that scholastic zeal were able to thrive?

The explosion of paperwork, in turn, is a direct result of the introduction of corporate management techniques, which are always justified as ways of increasing efficiency, by introducing competition at every level. What these management techniques invariably end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell each other things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of our students’ job and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors, institutes, conference workshops, and universities themselves, which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors. Marketing and PR thus come to engulf every aspect of university life.

The result is a sea of documents about the fostering of “imagination” and “creativity,” set in an environment that might as well have been designed to strangle any actual manifestations of imagination and creativity in the cradle. I am not a scientist. I work in social theory. But I have seen the results in my own field of endeavour. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have, instead, been largely reduced to the equivalent of Medieval scholastics, scribbling endless annotations on French theory from the 1970s, despite the guilty awareness that if contemporary incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or even Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the U.S. academy, they would be unlikely to even make it through grad school, and if they somehow did make it, they would almost certainly be denied tenure.

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy pg 134

In what I’ve discussed so far, there are a number of distinct (overlapping?) factors which these thinkers have diagnosed as harmful to academic writing:

  • Status insecurity of social scientists, particularly vis-a-vis natural scientists.
  • The time pressures of the accelerated academy and increasing tempos of expected publication.
  • Competition in the academic labour market and the imperative to achieve security through publication.
  • Managerialism and metricisation creating an organisational environment within which marketing and PR have engulfed even scholarship.

At the risk of stating the obvious, what each of these factors have in common is the scholar. Note that when I write ‘the scholar’, I abstract from actually existing embodied persons. This carries the same cost that Billig notes of ‘the subject’:

It sounds much grander, more official, and less personal. The definite article – the ‘the’ – adds cachet. By using ‘the subject’, the authors turn ‘people’ into another theoretical thing. (pg 158)

I’m not trying to write about a category. I’m trying to write about the people who occupy that category. The living, breath, hoping, despairing, finite beings for whom ‘academic’ is one social role amongst others occupied in their lives. Furthermore, within the confines of that role, they might aspire to ‘scholar’ and feel constrained by the realities of the organisations within which they work. Writing offers an interesting route into ‘the scholar’. A way to diagnose what troubles them so. Another way of exploring the ‘deep somatic crisis’ that critics like Roger Burrows and Ros Gill have claimed afflicts the contemporary academy. But this is a much bigger project than one blog post can contain.

In a recent book about the neoliberal superstar turned aspiring world saviour Jeffrey Sachs, a quote from his wife caught my attention. On loc 2909, she describes how Sachs only sleeps for four hours a night and works constantly throughout his waking hours. Even on a family holiday, he

often gave two or three speeches a day in addition to meetings starting anytime from 7 a.m. till late at night. He then spent most nights writing technical papers, articles, memos and proposals, while keeping in daily contact with his colleagues, working with them via phone, fax and email. All this, while consuming about a book a day on topics ranging from ecology through tropical diseases.

How do you feel when you read this? Sachs is obviously an extreme case but the uptake of social media in academia makes it much more likely we’ll be exposed to information about the working routines of people outside our immediate circles.

In some cases, this can be a good thing and such ambient intimacy can be a foundation for solidarity, as people see the possibility of working collectively to ameliorate shared conditions. But it can often be decidedly negative, creating unrealistic perceptions of how much others are working and helping contribute to cultures of overwork.

We need to be careful about how we present our own working habits through social media, as well as how we interpret the self-presentation of others.

A distinction I find rather tenuous, invoked by Ray Brassier in his attack on the self-importance of the speculative realist blogging community:

What is peculiar to them is the claim that this is the first philosophy movement to have been generated and facilitated by the internet: a presumption rooted in the inability to distinguish philosophy from talk about philosophy. The vices so characteristic of their discourse can be traced back directly to the debilities of the medium. Blogging is essentially a journalistic medium, but philosophy is not journalism. Exchanging opinions about philosophy, or even exchanging philosophical opinions, ought not to be equated with philosophical debate. This is not to say that one cannot produce and disseminate valuable philosophical research online. But the most pernicious aspect of this SR/OOO syndrome is its attempt to pass off opining as argument and to substitute self-aggrandizement for actual philosophical achievement.

Given he accepts one can “produce and disseminate valuable philosophical research online”, it’s hard not to wonder about the criteria for distinguishing between philosophy and talk about philosophy. This seemingly narrow debate is one we can expect to see much more of, in other disciplines and in relation to other topics, as social media becomes increasingly mainstream within academic life.

There’s a lovely extract of the Academic Diary in which Les Back reflects on the life and work of the social theorist Vic Seidler. Remarking on the vast range of topics on which Seidler has written, Les suggests that this deeply committed man “writes not because his academic position expects it but because he has something to say and communicate”. For someone like Seidler, writing is something a person does because they are “trying to work something out”.

This captures what I see as the promise of academic blogging. It’s a platform for trying to work things out. More so, doing it in the open grants each of these attempts a social existence, one that comes with undoubted risks but also enormous rewards. Little bits of thought shrapnel, brief attempts to make some sense of the ‘feel of an idea’, come to enjoy their own existence within the world. They’re mostly forgotten or even ignored from the outset. But there’s something quite remarkable about occasions when these fragments resurface as someone sees something of value in them, perhaps when you saw no value in them yourself.

Furthermore, it attunes you to the impulse to write because you have “something to say and communicate”. This isn’t always the case and I worry that the metricisation of scholarly blogging will prove immensely destructive of it. But there is at least for now something deeply rewarding about seizing on an inchoate idea, developing it and throwing it off into the world to see what others make of it. For no other reason than the pleasure inherent to it.

The notion of ‘publish or perish’ has become something of a cliché. But its reality is starkly confirmed by the sheer quantity of scholarly literature produced each year, with an estimated 28,100 active scholarly peer-reviewed journals publishing around 1.8-1.9 million articles in 2012. How much of this literature is written as a contribution to knowledge and how much of it is written to be counted? How many of these papers provoke serious engagement and how many are largely forgotten? After all, it’s estimated that 82% of papers in the humanities are never cited, 27% in the natural sciences and 32% in the social sciences.

Does keeping up with the literature remain feasible when so much is being produced? Graham Scambler suggests we are seeing a ‘compression of the past’ in which many Sociology papers increasingly make reference to “a handful of ‘reified’ classics from the past century and a flowering profusion of twenty-first century offerings”. His point is that when we have access to a “a bewildering and heterogeneous assembly of up-to-date sources” we tend to combine uncontentious canonical sources with “what we have most recently digested”. He argues that great bodies of work are lost under these conditions, contributing to a situation thatStephen Mugford describes as the eternal sunshine of the spotless sociologist: long studied topics and well developed approaches are ‘invented’ afresh, without reference to the originals, such that endless reiteration and forgetting replaces cumulative intellectual progress

This special section of The Sociological Review’s website seeks short blog posts reflecting on the challenge for scholarship under conditions of abundance. This might include topics such as the following:

  • Is it becoming more difficult to keep up with the literature within any given field?
  • What role does specialisation play in the explosion of scholarly publishing?
  • Do our reading practices need to change under these conditions?
  • Is the proliferation of journal articles simply a distraction? Do we need a renewed focus on quality rather than quantity?
  • How do the demands of career progression contribute to the proliferation of journal articles?
  • Should we place more value on review articles because of their capacity to systematise and condense sprawling literatures?
  • Do we need new practices of reflection to consolidate what has been established within a field? Could social media help to this end?

Please contact Mark Carrigan with submissions or any questions relating to the special section: The deadline for contributions is March 31st 2016.

From Ann Oakley’s satirical novel Overheads. A remarkable rant from a professor who has just been discovered to have fabricated the vast majority of his publications list:

The thing is, Lydia, few people realise how few books or articles are ever read by anybody. The average number of people who read an academic article is 4.6. Do you know how many books are published every year? About a quarter of a million int he UK and the States alone. Who needs them? I ask you! Most people write things just to put them on their CVs. So that’s what I did, only I put them on my CV without writing them. It’s been a kinda test of the moral status of the academy: a research project into ethics and everyday academic life, if you like. It’s been fun.

What we need, I often think, i s something like the set-aside mechanism of the Common Agricultural Policy. Farmers get paid for not growing crops, so we academics should get paid for not writing. As I have been, ine ffect. It’d make things a helluva lot easier. Just think: you wouldn’t ever have to update student reading lists, all those journal editors would stop harassing you to review books, students’d have more money to spend on beer, libraries wouldn’t have to keep expanding, and it’s be good for our eyesight as well.

pg 258

This superb post by Cory Doctorow offers a philosophy of blogging extremely similar to what I’ve described as continuous publishing:

As a committed infovore, I need to eat roughly six times my weight in information every day or my brain starts to starve and atrophy. I gather information from many sources: print, radio, television, conversation, the Web, RSS feeds, email, chance, and serendipity. I used to bookmark this stuff, but I just ended up with a million bookmarks that I never revisited and could never find anything in.

Theoretically, you can annotate your bookmarks, entering free-form reminders to yourself so that you can remember why you bookmarked this page or that one. I don’t know about you, but I never actually got around to doing this — it’s one of those get-to-it-later eat-your-vegetables best-practice housekeeping tasks like defragging your hard drive or squeegeeing your windshield that you know you should do but never get around to.

Until I started blogging. Blogging gave my knowledge-grazing direction and reward. Writing a blog entry about a useful and/or interesting subject forces me to extract the salient features of the link into a two- or three-sentence elevator pitch to my readers, whose decision to follow a link is predicated on my ability to convey its interestingness to them. This exercise fixes the subjects in my head the same way that taking notes at a lecture does, putting them in reliable and easily-accessible mentalregisters.

Blogging also provides an incentive to keep blogging. As Boing Boing’s hit-counter rises steadily, growing 10-30 percent every month, I get a continuous, low-grade stream of brain-rewards; rewards that are reinforced by admiring email, cross-links from other blogs that show up in my referrer logs, stories that I broke climbing the ranks on Daypop and Blogdex (and getting picked up by major news outlets). The more I blog, the more reward I generate: strangers approach me at conferences and tell me how much they liked some particular entry; people whose sites I’ve pointed to send me grateful email thanking me for bringing their pet projects to the attention of so many people.

The final stages of Social Media for Academics are giving me flashbacks to the end of my PhD. I’ve drunk so much coffee that I can barely sit down, I have Forces of Victory on repeat and I’m alternating between thinking the nearly finished work is brilliant and concluding that it’s utterly shit. Over the weekend, I expect this will degenerate into symphonic power metal and energy drinks as I force myself to do the manuscript preparation & tidying up in one go. This led to a remarkably unpleasant 36 hours during my PhD which was nonetheless a very good idea, given my capacity for procrastination.

However I’m actually quite enjoying it, in a masochistic sort of way, which is rather different to how I felt at the end of my PhD. There’s a diffuse sense of nostalgia about it. After all, it’s the second time I’m doing something which I hope to do many times over the course of my life.

I think I’ve written a good book, with some significant weaknesses – most of which could have been addressed by being much more systematic with my writing and reading process over the last year and a half. For instance, it has little to no grounding in the ed tech literature, which I’m sure will irritate a fair number of people, but I’ve never intended it to be a contribution to this literature so I’m not sure I mind that much. I also think there needs to be a disclaimer on it: “warning, does not contain anything substantive about teaching and social media”.

More positively: I think there are a lot of ideas in the book, covering an extremely wide range of topics. I think I set academic social media in a broader technological and institutional context in an interesting and engaging way. I don’t think it lives up to the rather precise pedagogical vision I had at the start, but I’m confident I’ve written a very useful book. I’m also confident people will find it a thoughtful book. But that’s rather the problem. My thoughts on this subject are still changing on a daily basis. It’s why I find academic social media so interesting. Hopefully readers of the book will accept the invitation to come find me on Twitter & read this blog.

This is the only way I can get myself to declare Social Media for Academics finished and send it along to Sage: it’s a crystallisation of a lived engagement, objectifying ideas that are still very much in motion. Otherwise the fixity of a book frustrates me.

<goes to make more coffee>

Harry Quebert: “A book is a battle” 

When questioned by a friend in 1980 as to whether he was happy at Princeton, the philosopher Richard Rorty replied that he was “delighted that I lucked into a university which pays me to make up stories and tell them”. He went on to suggest that “Universities permit one to read books and report what one thinks about them, and get paid for it” and that this is why he saw himself first and foremost as a writer, in spite of his already entrenched antipathy towards the philosophical profession which would grow with time. It’s a lovely idea, isn’t it? This is the thought that keeps coming back to me as I’m preparing to participate in the Time Without Time symposium in Edinburgh later this week.

The invited speakers have been asked to reflect on “their practice, roles and research interests” in terms of the themes of the symposium. Perhaps slightly depressingly, it’s occurred to me that so much of what I do has in a sense been motivated by frustration that the university is not what I once (naively) believed it to be. My interest in social acceleration (how I approach the themes of the symposium) is in large part an attempt to understand how and why this is so: this is where my thoughts currently stand and I’m running this international conference with Filip Vostal in December.

The problem is that employment in a university no longer requires that one simply reads books and reports what one thinks about them. Was this ever really the case? Either way, it’s a seductive vision. Unfortunately, it is belied by the over one hundred metrics to which each academic working within UK higher education is potentially subject. Contrary to Rorty’s ideal of scholars reading books, writing about them and occasionally deigning to share their reflections with students, we’re instead measured constantly in matters such as workload, teaching and research within institutions that are themselves ranked in a way constituted through the measurement of the individuals within them.

Professional lives are judged according to opaque criteria, ratcheted up between assessment exercises such that anything less than ‘international excellence’ is coming to be seen as worthless. At some institutions, including my own, we see the introduction of the demand that staff meet a certain baseline of ‘income generation’ in order to keep their jobs: despite the fact that the money apportioned by way of research assessment exercises is intended to fund research. For instance a Bristol University lecturer was sacked, allegedly for not securing enough grant income. The phrase ‘publish or perish’ acquired new resonance when Stefan Grimm, a respected figure in Toxicology, committed suicide after being threatened with redundancy for failing to win enough research funding.

The culture this breeds is corrosive and unhappy. All the descriptions pertaining to artists in the e-flux article assigned as reading for the symposium apply with unnerving accuracy to academics: “barely capable of distinguishing themselves from the consuming desire to work at all times”, “neurotic people who deploy a series of practices that coincide quite neatly with the requirements of the neoliberal, predatory, continually mutating capitalism of the every moment”, “people who behave, communicate, and innovate in the same manner as those who spend their days trying to capitalize every moment and exchange of daily life”. In a much circulated paper, the feminist scholar Ros Gill suggests that a ‘sacrificial ethos’ silences stories of stress and insecurity. At all career stages, though perhaps most harmfully amongst PhD students and early career researchers, a sense of commitment to a calling helps license acquiescence to precarious and exploitative labour relations which make a lie of the ideal of collegiality still alluded to within the academy.

However this is more than just overwork and over-identification with a job. The Tumblr blog academia is killing my friends contains 40 personal narratives of “abuse, exploitation and suffering in academia”. We shouldn’t conclude that postings stopped in July 2014 because the editor exhausted the available stories. This doesn’t end with graduate school and, if anything, it looks likely to get worse: a recent survey by the Guardian Higher Education Network of 1366 academics who had experienced bullying at work, half of whom were based in the UK, pointed to management structures orientated towards ‘research excellence’ which had created a pervasive culture of fear amongst staff. Higher education has become a deeply toxic place and, through a sociological lens, it’s easy to see how this has its roots in structural features of the sector rather than simply being the aggregate tendency of a collection of unpleasant people.

The image Rorty presents us with of scholarship is idealistic. It reflects his own privilege. It’s an artefact of a higher education system that in the 1980s Ivy League was substantially different to what we see in 2015 in the UK. Most strikingly of all: the image is of a slow life. It suggests Rorty dreamily ambling through his days, going for long morning walks through the Gothic splendour of Princeton’s campus and spending long afternoons reading books in front of a fire place, occasionally putting pen to paper to record what thoughts they have provoked within him.

In an important way, what’s changed can be characterised in terms of speed… the imagined slowness of Rorty’s Princeton life has given way to a frenetic pace, defined by a perpetual ratcheting up of demands and an entrepreneurial ethos seeking new and quantifiable opportunities. As the ‘self-employed mindset’ begins to take hold, it’s difficult to know how much to give: am I doing enough? The demand for ‘excellence’ is open-ended because it’s never clear what this will constitute in the future. Nonetheless, it’s the only thing that will be accepted. As David Cameron put it recently, “if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change … if you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you”. He was talking about secondary education rather than higher education but I’ve yet to encounter a more succinct statement of what the political theorist Will Davies memorably describes as heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest. Anxiety thrives, demands intensify and metrics are the informational thread which holds this tangled web together. These numbers can be transparent and they can also be opaque. They can be sources of pleasure and sites of anxiety. When everything moves so fast, we rely on these metrics as cyphers for quality: ways of assessing in lieu of evaluation, assessing others and assessing ourselves.

In my work at the moment I’m developing the notion of ‘cognitive triage’ to make sense of how agents come to operate in such an environment. It was initially offered by the journalist Kevin Roose to describe the frantic state of day-to-day survival into which trainee financiers fall in order to survive their deliberately brutal socialisation period. When we’re triaging, we attend to the most immediate requirements and our temporal horizons begin to shrink. Under these conditions, imagination becomes more difficult and so too does extended deliberation about our circumstances and what matters to us. This isn’t inexorable and I think we can see many contemporary trends as attempts to escape triaging and to get beyond ‘the day-to-day’ e.g. digital detoxes, information diets, life hacking, productivity culture, mindfulness. With the exception of the latter however, I’m sceptical that these help because they tend to intensify our focus on our immediate behaviour: even if they help us cope with the pernicious effects of cognitive triage, they further narrow our horizons rather than broadening them.

Cognitive triage breeds a mentality within which tasks become obstacles to negotiate rather than activities through which we can become who we are. Consider the to-do list: each item is given a equal weight, regardless of the meaning it holds for us. When we’re triaging, we rush. We don’t attend to the task at hand, following its internal logic as we lead our way through it. There’s a relational richness to practical activity which can so easily be obliterated by the mentality produce by triaging. Ironically, I’m triaging right now. I want to get this post finished so I can answer a couple of e-mails and go to bed. But this post is an attempt to lay out as a whole strands of thought that have been obsessing me for a number of years. My disparate interests actually do fit together and the urge to articulate how this is so feels of profound concern to me. But I also have to get up early tomorrow morning, clean my house, do a mass of event organisation, edit some posts for the Sociological Review blog, get my special issue of Discover Society off the ground, pack for Edinburgh and practice this at least once as a talk so that I don’t just start rambling when I get up to speak on Thursday. The urgent is crowding out the important. It happens a lot. For now, I’ll give in to it, in order that I can write a ‘part 2’ tomorrow which is slightly less rushed.

I finally received my Artefact Cards last week and I love them. They were a pain to get hold of due to a spectacularly inept delivery company but Artefact soon rectified this when I e-mailed them to complain. They’re probably only likely to appeal to those with a real stationary problem but if you too find yourself fixated on Moleskine notebooks and their ilk then I suspect you will like them every bit as much as I do.

The idea behind the cards is to materialise ideas. This is a concept that appeals to me immensely. One of the weirdest experiences of my life was the first time I printed out my PhD thesis. Suddenly the ethereality which had recurrently seeped into every part of my life over the past six years was transmuted into a thing… it was just some stuff that I had written. This was a more intense form of a feeling that I often get when writing. Getting the words out into the world, giving them a form, somehow makes my mind feel lighter, even if that form is digital. The idea becomes something ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’, with a definite form rather than a potential range.

The card themselves are designed to “help you craft better ideas, create new idea combinations by moving, shuffling, stacking, dealing and matching them”. In essence they’re just blank playing cards, with a look and feel which has obviously been the subject of much thought, which can be filled using the supplied Sharpie. They’re perhaps slightly overpriced but it’s hard to begrudge an individual creator this for a product that so much love has clearly gone into.

I’m already finding them immensely useful. In the cards below are the talk I’m giving at the Digital Sociology conference in New York in a couple of weeks. I recorded everything I wanted to say on its own individual card. I’m now going to arrange them in order to draw out clusters, perhaps discard a few and then write the talk using these cards as prompts. In this sense, it allows me to organise my ideas in a more systematic way without sacrificing the writing-to-see-what-happens approach which I prefer. I’m sure some of the prompts will be discarded, others will be rethought and all of them will exceed the limits of what I placed on the card itself.


In the past I’ve blogged about this in terms of non-linear creativity. I’ve always struggled to write and think in a linear way. I find it difficult to develop ideas sequentially and planning pieces of writing just doesn’t work for me. I often don’t completely know what it is I’m trying to write when I start the process. Assuming I’ve previously baked ideas in the unconscious mind the kind of writing I enjoy most is quasi-automatic. I prefer to write in fragments and piece them together, with the overall structure being something that emerges through this process:

Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outline, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152

I find this immensely enjoyable and blogging is the apotheosis of it for me. However in the last couple of years, I’ve taken this too far and I’m trying to reintroduce structure into the process. Overly-enthused by the discovery that I can write pretty endlessly about subjects that I’ve thought a lot about, I submitted a series of journal articles that were basically 7000 word blog posts. The responses weren’t actually that bad but they were uniformly requests for major revisions and the experience made me realise that I need to introduce much more discipline into my academic writing and this is what the Artefact Cards seem to be helping with already. I need to develop ideas in a more sustained way, producing more tightly argued and well integrated scholarship, without sacrificing the creative side of the process that I enjoy so much. In other words, I have lots of ideas but I need to learn to develop them much more systematically in order to produce journal articles of the standard which I’d like to.

I’m convinced that the Artefact Cards will prove very helpful in this respect. They introduce another step in the planning process before any kind of writing has taken place: rather than having the ideas churning in the back of my mind, it’s possible to get them out into a physical form where they can be sifted, shuffled and sorted. Here are some other ways I’m using them:

  1. I’m setting myself 500 word writing assignments for Social Media for Academics. I’m going through the book as it currently stands and recording every idea I have about something that should be added in. I’m going to take some of the ensuing cards in my wallet whenever I travel so that I can do brief bits of focused writing on my iPad on the train.
  2. I have close to 100 cards now which record every idea I have about the acceleration of higher education for the project I’m doing with Filip Vostal. I did hit exhaustion point with the cards and that was interesting. I had a very definite sense that “this is everything I think about this subject” and I’ve had no further ideas since (whereas with others, ideas keep occurring to me). It’s presented me with the limitations of what I have to say about the subject but also left me with a more clearer sense of what I do want to say, even if it’s not quite as expansive as I thought it was. I’m going to use these cards to do some prompted blogging on, consult them when planning the conference and use them as a source of ideas in the writing we’re doing.
  3. I have a stack of cards for the large post-doc project that is starting to take shape in my mind. This is much more provisional and I only have 20 or so cards thus far. This has left me aware of how much more work I need to do because the ideas on the cards are very general. I’m going to try and develop these in clusters: going from an idea like ‘cognitive triage’ to develop many other related notions. I plan to add to these over time and hopefully by the time I start putting together a grant application at the end of the year, I’ll have a much more concrete sense of the planned project than I do at present.

These are just a few ideas I’ve had in less than a week of owning the cards. I’m sure I’ll have many more. Though I’ve almost finished a £36 box of cards since then, it’s been a really useful experience and left me with a much greater degree of purchase upon the projects I’m in the process of developing. I doubt this intensity of usage will be the norm but I’m certain that Artefact Cards will be a regular part of my working life from this point onwards.

I’ve long been a little bit fascinated by Žižek. I find him utterly hypnotic to watch and have consumed countless YouTube lectures by him. I genuinely enjoy his journalistic output and have read a lot of it via the Guardian, London Review of Books and the New Statesman. I find his short books immensely readable and his longer books rather tedious. I’ve never been able to work out how seriously I take him as a philosopher. I find myself simultaneously drawn to him and repelled by him. I find his politics brave yet vacuous. I find his ideas occasionally illuminating yet more frequently elusive. He’s a strange thinker who disrupts my evaluative habits, preventing me from fitting him into the categories I use with other writers and revealing the limitations of those (overly neat) categories in the process.

However the thing that intrigues me most about Žižek is his voluminous output. He is a publishing phenomenon – something attested to by the regurgitation of blurbs about him on each new book. He transcends his work, becoming a brand in a manner so knowing that his status resists easy condemnation. In an important way he is a product of the neoliberal academy: the superstar professor who uses his global brand to float free of the scholarly and collegial ties that otherwise bind. Partly this is a contradiction that can be observed in other left wing intellectual superstars – Chomsky is the most obvious example and this is why their ‘spat’ was so fascinating to many. But Žižek seems at least quantitatively different in the sheer scale of his output.

According to the Žižek bibliography on wikipedia, he has published 55 books since 2000. 55 books in less than 15 years. I was curious about whether this amounts to the sheer weight of writing that it would superficially appear to be. In assessing this I’ve excluded papers, letters, interviews, collections of his writing, things that are co-written, his joke book (!), edited collections and what is apparently a reprint of his doctoral thesis. I’ve also excluded anything that I’m unable to categorise reliably which excludes the books published in Slovenian that haven’t been translated yet (as far as I’m aware). In other words, this is an extremely conservative figure for Žižek’s output since 2000. Not least of all because it excludes his vast journalistic writing (though obviously we know that, in an important sense, it includes this).

For purposes of an exercise in procrastination, I was content to simply add up the total pages of each book (as listed on Amazon) in order to gain an overall figure of the quantity of his writing. Obviously I realise that neither publishing or writing really works this way – there’s also the open question of how much regurgitation there is between each of these books. Here’s the full list:

Absolute Recoil: 440 pages
Trouble in Paradise: 240 pages
Event: 224 pages
Year of Dreaming Dangerously: 144 pages
Less Than Nothing: 1046 pages
Living In The End Times: 520 pages
First As Tragedy, Then As Farce: 168 pages
Violence: 224 pages
In Defence of Lost Causes: 504 pages
How To Read Lacan: 128 pages
The Parallax View: 448 pages
Iraq: 224 pages
The Puppet and the Dwarf: 190 pages
Organs Without Bodies: 232 pages
Welcome to the Desert of the Real: 160 pages
On Belief: 176 pages
The Fright of Real Tears: 144 pages
Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism: 288 pages
The Fragile Absolute: 208 page
The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: 46 pages

There are those I’ve read and enjoyed (First As Tragedy, Year of Dreaming Dangerously), those I’ve started and given up on (Less Than Nothing, Living In The End Times) and those I’ve read but cannot remember a single thing about (How To Read Lacan, In Defence of Lost Causes). There are also many I’ve never heard of. They come to a grand total of 5754 pages. That’s actually rather less than I expected. In a very rough way this quantity of output could be seen to amount to 411 pages per year since 2000. To reiterate: I do realise that neither writing nor publishing actually work this way. However it could be argued that any overestimate inherent in how crudely I’ve measured this is likely offset by the vast array of material that I’ve excluded from the count.

I don’t find anything remotely inconceivable about the idea of writing 411 pages in a year. Where it becomes surprising is when considering how consistently it would be necessary to sustain this sort of rate – I assume there’s an editorial infrastructure around Žižek which takes much of the work out of the many additional publications (edited collections, interviews etc) and also that pitches books to him at least some of the time. In this sense his commercial success likely translates into institutional scaffolding that reduce the cognitive load of writing i.e. reduces the number of things he has to think about in order to move from one project to the next. It’s also hard not to wonder if some of the contents of these books are just transcriptions of the many public talks he does (not that I think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with this) and that these invitations in turn enhance the writing process by offering a constant stream of ideational prompts and regular opportunities to refine ideas.

Even so, he still writes a hell of a lot with a remarkable consistency. In spite of his self-presentation as dishevelled and chaotic, it seems rather unlikely that he’s a binge writer and that he instead has a very regular writing routine. The more I’ve thought about this, I’ve become really intrigued by the conditions of his working life and how they facilitate his prolific output. As part of the project me and Filip Vostal are discussing at the moment, looking at the acceleration of higher education and its implications for scholarship, I’m increasingly aware that I’d like to do a case study of Žižek as representing a mode of public intellectualism facilitated by the accelerated academy. I don’t begrudge him his success but I’d like to understand it more than I do – particularly the intersection between his commercial viability and his scholarly virtues or lack thereof. I think many trends that are reshaping academic life find their expression in the figure of Žižek and writing this post has left me with a greater degree of clarity about why I find him so intriguing.

One of my favourite academic blogs is Understanding Society. Written by the philosopher Daniel Little, it covers a diverse range of topics across the social sciences while continually coming back to a number of core theoretical questions that fascinate me. Reflecting on its seventh anniversary, Little offers some interesting thoughts on the role that academic blogging plays in his own intellectual life:

This week marks the seventh anniversary of Understanding Society. That’s 954 posts, almost a million words, and about a hundred posts in the past twelve months. The blog continues to serve as an enormously important part of my own intellectual life, permitting me to spend a few hours several times a week on topics of continuing interest to me, without needing to find the time within my administrative life to try to move a more orderly book manuscript forward. And truthfully, I don’t feel that it is faut de mieux or second-best. I like the notion that it’s a kind of “open source philosophy” — ideas in motion. In my view, this is an entirely legitimate primary way of contributing to philosophy and sociology.

He also makes some interesting suggestions about the future of academic blogging that are informed by his own experience. In the last couple of years I’ve been settling into a view of my blog as my main outlet for developing my ideas, feeding into formal publications as occupational necessity and/or personal passion dictate – in fact the blog has helped me come to terms with the fact that the former and the latter may not always coincide. It’s interesting to see how Daniel Little experiences his blogging because it contrasts in some ways with my own – I share the experience of it being often ‘more creative and less laboured’ but I’m certain it’s much less rigorous, at least in the narrow sense of being carefully constructed. What I do on my blog often amounts to a form of free writing – I’m interested to see if this will change over time. I think Little offers a compelling account of the intellectual legitimacy of blogging and it’s actually left me wondering if I should try and be more careful and selective about my own writing online:

What I would really like to see in the future is a more porous membrane between academic blogging and academic publishing. There is no reason why the arguments and debates that are presented within an academic blog should not enter directly into engagement with formal publication — specialists writing about mechanisms, explanation, or historiography might well want to engage in their published work with the ideas and arguments that are developing in the online world of academic blogging. For example, I think the series of exchanges among Kaidesoja, Elder-Vass, Hartwig, Cruickshank, and Ruth Groff in Understanding Society in December and January make a substantive addition to debates within the field of critical realism. It would make sense for other specialists to take these sources into account in their published work.

I suppose many scholars would look at blog entries as “working notes” and published articles as “archival” and final, more authoritative and therefore more suitable for citation and further discussion. But I’m not sure that’s the right way of thinking about the situation. When I compare the intellectual work process I undertook in writing Varieties of Social Explanation or Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science with the care and concentration I give a blog post, I would say that the latter is just as rigorous and often more creative; less labored, more willing to lay out a new idea quickly. So speaking as a focus group of one, I would say I’m more satisfied with the quality of thinking and presentation I’ve conveyed in the blog than in the books I’ve published.

There’s a wonderful discussion in the midst of this review essay of Bernard WIlliams’s collected essays, which incidentally sound fantastic, in which the author defends Williams against accusations of lazy scholarship. I’ve written about this issue in the past (particuarly here and here) and it’s one which continues to concern me. The author of the essay brings out much more clearly than I have been able to what I see as the crux of this problem: the prohibition on ‘evading the literature’ has a disciplinary function, drawing scholarly endeavour into an over-production of scholarly work that has structural origins and, through doing so, fuelling the over-production which is the underlying problem. This isn’t an argument in favour of ‘evading the literature’ but it as an argument against such a prohibition being axiomatic. The “Sisyphean task of attempting to stay up to date” often works to squeeze out time for thinking about the things that most interest us.

Seeing the range of Williams’s knowledge is important because it casts into new light a refrain often heard about his academic philosophical writing: that it is characterised by a fundamental laziness regarding scholarship, evidenced by the fact Williams only ever cited his friends and his students.

The accusation is usually meant as one of sloppiness, of Williams’s unwillingness to supplement his dazzling intellect with the hard work of scholarly endeavour, trusting that he could evade the academic literature by simply being quicker than his peers. Perhaps this is true, but these essays suggest a better line of explanation. We can now see that Williams was not lazy: he spent an immense amount of time reading and thinking, and knew much beyond his own academic arguments. What he chose to do was spend time thinking about things that most interested him, rather than engaging in the Sisyphean task of attempting to stay up to date with the vast and ever-expanding sea of contemporary scholarship, which tirelessly throws out publication after publication in every conceivable niche of enquiry. It is undeniable that the vast majority of present scholarly output in philosophy and attendant disciplines is of a poor standard: it is either unoriginal, original at the expense of being preposterous and tiresomely pointless or trivial, or else diligent and robust but utterly devoid of interest to anybody other than those academics who have made a career out of grinding out points and counterpoints within debates that only exist because of the very professionalization of intellectual pursuits of which their activity is a function. Williams chose to bypass all of this and get on with being original and interesting. It is not at all clear that he was making a mistake.

The present government’s Kafkaesque “Research Excellence Framework” demands that academics churn out publications, regardless of whether they have anything to say. More generally, there has been a pronounced cultural shift in professionalized academia away from teaching and towards measurable ‘outputs’, encouraging academics to translate whatever modest or untenable ideas they have into high ‘impact’ publications. Academia is in danger of ending up moribund via a prolonged case of morbid obesity. Williams’s advice was the exact opposite of all of this: disciplines like philosophy should not encourage, or give incentives for, publishing, unless what one writes is likely to be very good indeed; likely to be both genuinely interesting and original. This was not (as it is often mistakenly taken to be) a matter of snobbery on Williams’s behalf. It was a function of a well thought-out view regarding what philosophy is, one that comes out strongly in the later essays collected in Essays and Reviews. In essence, for Williams, philosophy is not like science. In science, the big breakthroughs come from brilliant thinkers, but the rest of the time everybody else can usefully get on with collecting data and increasing the sum of human knowledge. Philosophy is not like that: in philosophy, you are not only not adding data if you are making bad, or unoriginal, or stupid, or pointlessly banal and repetitive arguments, you are getting in the way of those who are trying to make sense of our world, and who might be able to make more sense of it than those who have tried before. If this is elitism, it is justified by the seriousness with which Williams wanted to make more sense of our world than has hitherto been managed; the brute truth is that most practitioners of contemporary academic philosophy just do not help in that task. (There is a separate question as to whether one needs to be a highly talented and original thinker in order to teach at a university. That in turn raises questions about what the role, purpose, and corresponding organizational structure of the modern university should be—questions to which it does not seem that anybody at present has particularly good answers, least of all the present government.)

I just came across this wonderful list by Jack Kerouac, Belief and Technique for Modern Prose, in the Beats anthology I’m slowly making my way through:

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

There’s a few points in here which really speak to the argument I’m developing for an upcoming paper about sociological writing, blogging and attentiveness. I’m not sure how, if at all, I could include them in the paper – something which actually neatly illustrates the broader point I’m trying to make in it. I’m having to abstract away from what I’m trying to express, as well as the terms in which I feel moved to express it, for the paper in a way which I’d never have to do on a blog.

But assuming that the form of the paper serves a purpose (it clearly does) and is not going away any time soon (it clearly isn’t) then the personal question becomes how to preserve the creative impulse from corrosion by the endless, sometimes imperceptible, acts of censorship and detachment which ‘academic writing’ unavoidably entails. I’m arguing in the paper that blogging can be an integral part of this, as part of a practice of cultivating attentiveness, though there’s no guarantee it will be so for any one person or for ‘academic blogging’ as a broader trend.

One of my favourite academic blogs is Understanding Society. Written by Daniel Little, Chancellor for the University of Michigan-Dearborn, it covers an extraordinarily broad range of theoretical topics and sustains the rigour of serious academic writing while nonetheless being written in a relatively accessible way. I think it’s the best theory blog on the internet (by quite some way) and I’m always stunned by quite how much interesting stuff there is in the archives. The author, who has also done some excellent video interviews with leading social scientists, describes the blog as a ‘hypertext book’ and you can find an index of topics here.

My blog, UnderstandingSociety, addresses a series of topics in the philosophy of social science. What is involved in “understanding society”? The blog is an experiment in writing a book, one idea at a time.  In order to provide a bit more coherence for the series of postings, I’ve organized a series of threads that link together the postings relevant to a particular topic.  These can be looked at as virtual “chapters”.  This list of topics and readings can serve as the core of a semester-long discussion of the difficult philosophical issues that arise in the human sciences.  It roughly parallels the topics I cover in the course I teach in the philosophy of social science at the University of Michigan.

I’d be interested to know if Little still sees it as book. The sheer size of the blog’s archives suggest that it’s now something approximating a whole series of books. Clearly, it’s been a success. What I have always been curious about is the author’s institutional role (which I assume is the equivalent of a UK vice-chancellor) and the role which the blog perhaps serves as an outlet for his continued scholarship when he presumably has many other commitments competing for his time. I was pleased to see this addressed recently in a really thoughtful and thought-provoking post. The blog recently had its sixth birthday and the author reflected on the evolution of the blog and his understanding of the role that it serves:

This week celebrates six years of Understanding Society.  This effort represents over 850 posts, on topics ranging from current debates in philosophy about causal powers to China’s urban transformation to the conservative war on the poor, leading to nearly three million page views since the first post in 2007.  I’m grateful to the communities of interested readers who have followed Understanding Society on TwitterFacebook, and Google Plus. There are almost 4,000 readers in these groups, and I’m grateful to everyone who has read, followed, tweeted, commented, and Googled the blog — thanks!

What I found particularly interesting was the author’s description of himself as an ‘open-source philosopher’. The integration of the blog into his working practices, such that it constitutes the starting point for traditional scholarship rather than something in opposition to it, is something which deeply resonates with me from the opposite end of the career spectrum. When I’ve written about continuous publishing in the past, this is exactly what I’ve been trying to say:

Virtually all the new academic publishing I’ve done in these six years began as a couple of posts on Understanding Society. You might say I’ve become an “open-source” philosopher — as I get new ideas about a topic I develop them through the blog. This means that readers can observe ideas in motion. A good example is the efforts I’ve made in the past year to clarify my thinking about microfoundations and meso-level causation. Another example is the topic of “character,” which I started thinking about after receiving an invitation to contribute to a volume on character and morality; through a handful of posts I arrived at a few new ideas I felt I could offer on the topic.  This “design and build” strategy means that there is the possibility of a degree of inconsistency over time, as earlier formulations are challenged by newer versions of the idea. But I think it makes the process of writing a more dynamic one, with lots of room for self-correction and feedback from others.

The blog has also given me a chance to write about topics I’ve long cared about, but haven’t had a professional venue for writing about. These include things like the reality of race in the United States; the lineaments of power that determine so many of the features of contemporary life; and the nuts and bolts of education and equality in our country. And along the way of researching and writing about some of these topics, I’ve come to have a better and more detailed understanding of them. Not many philosophers have such a wide opportunity to write on a variety of topics beyond the confines of their sub-disciplines.

It’s really interesting to read about the blogging experiences of someone who has been a philosophy professor for decades. I was struck by the homology between his experiences and my own in spite of our very different positions within the higher education system. I wonder if there’s something interesting about freedom here. As someone who has blogged throughout my PhD, I’ve experienced it as an intellectual outlet which has no real implications for my academic position (though retrospectively that’s not really true). Perhaps Daniel Little feels similarly free about his blog, for entirely different reasons, as a result of his institutional position leaving scholarship via his blog being something he does for its own rewards rather than any need to make a living out of it. Reading his post has increased my confidence in the notion of ‘continuous publishing’ and strengthened my conviction that, with time, this is a way of working that will become ever more common. Both the short-term and long-term gains available to those who begin to work in this way are such that it seems inexorable, barring a trend towards heavy-handed institutional regulation or something along those lines. I think the implications of this are hugely significant. Here’s how Pat Lockley and I described it in a blog post we wrote quite some time ago:

Perhaps it’s time to move from ‘the Cathedral to the Bazaar’. These metaphors from the open-source software movement refer to contrasting models of software development. In academic terms we might see them as referring to distinct orientations towards publishing: one which works towards the intermittent, largely private, production of one-off works (papers and monographs → cathedrals) and the other which proceeds in an iterative and dialogical fashion, with a range of shorter-term outputs (blog posts, tweets, online articles, podcasts, storified conversations etc) standing in a dynamic and productive relationship with larger-scale traditional publishing projects: the ‘cathedrals’ can be something we build through dialogues, within communities of practice, structured around reciprocal engagement with publications on social media platforms.

The idea which is still insufficiently clear in my own mind is how my advocacy of this relates to my belief in academic over-production. I’ve had a vague intuition for a long time about the potential ‘rebalancing’ away from ever more journal articles which ever fewer people read and towards a continuous making public of provisional work which ultimately leads to fewer though better journal articles. In a future post I’ll try and elaborate my understanding of the institutional constraints and enablements upon such as process, as well as what I imagine the landscape of scholarly publishing might look like when it is filled with a preponderance of open-source academics.