Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Academic trends in pictures

From GNXP, some beautiful graphs which depict the rise and fall of certain academic fads. My wife is a professor in the humanities (she did her graduate work at Berkeley in comp lit during the height of "theory"), and she got a big kick out of these!

Judith Butler, your 15 minutes are over :-) (Bad academic writing awards; see below figures for sample.)

Certain higher dimensional theories of fundamental physics might be next ;-)

I searched the archives of JSTOR, which houses a cornucopia of academic journals, for certain keywords that appear in the full text of an article or review (since sometimes the big ideas appear in books rather than journals). This provides an estimate of how popular the idea is -- not only the true believers, but their opponents too, will use the term. Once no one believes it anymore, then the adherents, opponents, and neutral spectators will have less occasion to use the term. I excluded data from 2003 onward because most JSTOR journals don't deposit their articles in JSTOR until 3 to 5 years after the original publication. Still, most of the declines are visible even as of 2002.

No, this is not a joke -- at least as far as I know.

Professor Butler’s first-prize sentence appears in “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997):

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.


Anonymous said...

Heh, that was pretty funny. I've only ever had the opportunity to use 'hegemony' in sarcasm.

Dave Bacon said...

I've seen similar plots from data mined from the arXiv. My most distinct memory was of the major rise of ADS/CFT.

Mitchell said...

It's ridiculous that Butler "won" that bad-writing competition. What she wrote is perfectly comprehensible, especially if you read the article it's taken from; moreover, the other finalists quoted are far more turgid. I can only think that the "judges" wanted to shoot her down because she's popular and respected within the intellectual movements that they wish to discredit.

As for what Butler is actually saying: she's saying, first you had theories of society in which social structure is static and determined apriori (the "Althusserian theories", with their focus on "capital"), then you had theories of society in which structure is continually recreated and exhibits historically contingent features (in this case, Laclau's theory of "hegemony", which is what the article is about). And so, if you are the sort who wants to bring about change (like Butler and her peers), this makes a difference, because in Althusser's model everything has to change at once, whereas in Laclau's, there are constantly openings for incremental change.

That is only an approximate account of what she's saying, but I'm just exasperated with displays of gloating ignorance from people who can do better. The postmodern universe certainly has produced constructions that are a horror from the perspective of sense and style, but this is not one of them.

Luke Lea said...

Those graphs all look like dinasaurs.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Mitchell. (Well put by the way.)

If certain terms, such as "social construction," are falling off the radar, it's because the point has been made and we can now continue exploring other lines of inquiry-- not because we renounce them or feel like fools for having used them.

Certainly the academic field is as subject to trends as any other.

Nicolas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicolas said...

There is a perfect account of this kind of bullcrap from a litterary person who saved them all : Jacques Bouveresse, a highly respected french logician and philosopher.

He has a small book called "dire et ne rien dire" (to say and to not say anything) where he "deconstruct" that kind of novspeak.

It has a very meaningful analysis on where these almost new language comes from, what purpose it serves in its environment.

I highly recommend it, and it is just flat out cracking funny to see a collection of various nonsensical sentences that mixes godel theorem with castro...

Nicolas said...

@mitchell : how is that ridiculous that she won the price ..

Is it *really* possible to find worse than that ?

Anonymous said...

Mitchell, your approximate account of what Butler was saying was simple and clear -- so why didn't she just say it that way?

Anonymous said...

To Smaug: Mitchell's paraphrase was (a) longer than the original; and (b) said less than the original.

This is how technical jargon works: it's a series of shortcuts aimed conveying information quickly to an in-crowd. It doesn't make sparkling prose, and it's tough if you're not an insider, but it does serve a function.

Blog Archive