This text is written as a preparation for my participation in a symposium on ”Digital Dissemination and its Others: Media Archaeology, Game Design and Knowledge Production in the Humanities”. My plan was to talk about a ”Digital platform for academic conversation” that I have been envisioning for some time now – partly seriously, partly as satire.
As I now read Michael Pidd’s brilliant chapter ”Wearable books” in the new publication The Academic book of the Future (eds. Rebecca E. Lyons and Samantha J. Rayner) I am glad I decided to change my topic. Especially since my plan was to try to be ”constructive” and take myself and my vision seriously, rather than pushing it as irony.
Pidd’s chapter is set some years after the the installation of the Pub Enjoyment Index (2031), after the publication of Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy (2033), and after implementation of The Research Impact Framework (RIF, 2038). This last framework, Pidd explains, resulted in formalized and immutable ”rules as to what constituted an acceptable submission”, and what they demand is that only ”Wearable books” should be counted (p. 19).
A wearable book – utilizing the Linked Ideas technology that emerged in the 2020s – is quite similar to, but more developed and imaginative than, what I had in mind with my platform, ”Papes”, for academic conversation. Not only does the Wearable book demand a full integration of every new idea with a easily accessible roadmap of its history and context; it contains a system of ”like” and ”dislike” that is directly connected to the meritocratic system (see Young’s pioneering work mentioned above for an account of its emergence): Pidd exemplifies its working with the detail that 800 ”likes” automatically promotes a statement to the status of ”fact” and for inclusion in Wikipedia (Pidd fails to tell if this inclusion is automatically administered by the Linked ideas system).
Pidd concludes his chapter with a call, little disguised and perhaps somewhat pathetic, for a revaluation of the printed book. Pidd’s hero, a reactionary scholar of the future, tells us that
there was sometimes a value in reading a lengthy, reflective work on a particular topic without the intrusion of other people’s views; hearing a single voice articulating one person’s ideas, irrespective of whether the ideas are transformative or not. This, she argued, was the genius of the old monograph in its printed form.
I want to add to Pidd’s argument and hopefully help strengthen it.
My point of departure is that we have more text today than ever before, and in particular in the area called scientific new books and articles are produced with a speed, I want to say with a ferocity, never seen becore. Articles and books are pouring out of academia.
Who reads this material?
To me it seems unlikely that much of it ever becomes read seriously. Who would have time for that? Numbers circulate on the internet that say that perhaps 90% of all articles in the humanities never become cited. While that might be interesting, it is beside my point, which is about reading.
My point is that, as our so celebrated ”knowledge” grows, it would make sense to acknowledge that ever more time and effort is needed just to understand what others have already grasped. Fields of knowledge are multiplying, and to understand the insights gained, the questions posed, the reasons for why once promising ideas were abandoned, and so on – it is virtually impossible today. It would take a lifetime. If there should be talk about crisis, it should be a crisis of the pressure to read, of the weight of past achievements; we should fear that we lack the ability to reach beyond what has already been said; fear that it will pointed out to us, by some more thorough explorer of the past, that what we thought was new, was in fact only a bleak copy of something that was better said before us.
But that is not how present day academia works. The pace of production – of supposed knowledge in the form of writing – is not slowed down, but sped up. What is encouraged is not reading, but writing.
It seems inevitable, then, that what is written is not really an ”addition”, in the sense we want to take scientific knowledge to be ”growing”, but something else. I want to suggest what.
What has happened with academic publishing is that it has been turned into a ritual. The term ritual is most often used informally, denoting something that is mechanized, meaningless, malfunctioning. I mean the word more specifically, with reference in particular to the American anthropologist Roy Rappaport and his Ritual and Religion in the Making of humanity (1999). He has a very specific definition of what he calls ”the ritual form”, and the describes what kind of effects can be expected from such institutionalized practice.
Pidd hints in this direction, with his (implicit) reference to Young’s book about meritocracy and the dismay with which he explains how the Research Impact Framework works. Using Rappaport’s definition of ritual it is possible to gain a better understanding of what it means that academic publication has become a ritual.
A ritual, basically, does two things – Rappaport says that it generates ”two streams of messages. With the risk of stretching brevity into confusion, the first message, which Rappaport calls ”canonical” shows, through the performance of the participants, for themselves and for the spectating society, what norms we have, what values we cherish; it is about what is stable and immutable. Research, in this sense, is a ritual celebration of knowledge, it is an enactment of knowledge production which makes it possible for us moderns to understand ourselves as properly modern, as a society that wants to know more, that wants to understand, that is engaged in enlightenment and in improvement; that has faith in science.
Rappaport calls the second message ”self-referential” and it is connected to the function of ritual to distribute value – constituted by the canonical message – among the participants. The canonical message, the very institution of the university, the funding of research, the pouring out of publications, and so on – demonstrates for society that it ”really” cares about science, that knowledge really is a cherished value. The self-referential message, then, shows who has knowle (that is what scool does) and who has contributed to our dead knowledge production. The ritual distributes ”roles” among participants, tells people who they are, where they belong, how much they are worth.
Ritual does this by its connection to the meritocratic system. A ”publication” is thus reflected back on the author as an addition of his or her ”value”; one can think of Bourdieu’s concept of ”symbolic capital” and ”peer review” as an event of consecration, and how achievements within this ritual is ”recognized and acknowledged”, by the formalized and rule governed procedures for reward in academia.
A first point, then, is that the actual content of academic publication is, today, subordinated to its function within the ritual. What is actually said is, to put it clearly, a by-product. One can get a sense of what this means by considering the stream of ”answers” produced in the education system – by pupils training for and taking tests. In contrast to how we put research in archives as proof of their sustained existence, answers within the education system are usually disposed of immediately, as their function within our liturgy is different (they are not knowledge in themselves, but tools for the induction of knowledge in the pupils).
A second point is that production and use of knowledge – and one must here recognize the problem created by the fact that the very term ”knowledge” is always tainted by its liturgical meaning – is displaced by ritual. The very language of ”production” is indicative of this; it brings knowledge into the same metaphorical complex where we also find money; making both into some kind of invisible substances, that can be ”produced”, that can ”grow” and somehow be ”used”. I think here, rather unspecifically, of the discussion of metaphors by Lakoff & Johnson and by Hans Blumenberg. Precisely as knowledge production becomes ritualized that it starts to make sense to understand knowledge as a substance. The production of knowledge, ”as substance”, is a highly regulated process. This is how I think we should understand ”peer-review”. To be counted as a ”knowledge producer”, thus means to have the capacity to engage successfully in a sort of game – Robert Pfaller very clearly brings out the connection between game, play and ritual in his On the Pleasure Principle in Culture (2014). But of course this is not just a game – it is about survival and well-being, in the university and in society.
When we consider what to do with academic publishing, how to improve it, how to make the most of technology etc. we should take this into account, that it is – or at least can be interpreted – as a ritual in a quite specific sense.
And – as an addition that I will not develop here – something similar goes for ”digital dissemination”. The ”digital”, that is, the open, accessible, has become a sort of substance too, that you can add to, by means of digitalization, and then become recognized, ritually, formally, as a ”producer”, a contributor. We get here too, then, a logic of content as by-product, a logic of ”push” – in the same way with research publications as with digital content – not at all driven by an actual interest or engagement by potential ”users”, to use this somewhat misleading word, by ”readers”.
Ritualization entail displacement. This, in my interpretation, is what many working in the university sense today, as they increasingly feel and are in fact increasingly obliged to follow procedures set up by others than themselves – to paraphrase part of Rappaport’s definition of ritual. It seems to me that enlightenment and science emerged in opposition to quite other rituals, Christian ones, and that people working on reading and writing, then, had a particular kind of freedom – namely the freedom that we now, instead of enjoying it, celebrate ritually, in the form of more or less scripted enactments.
Steve Fuller, a sociologist, talks about ideal science as a setting where ”ideas at stake would be sufficiently detached from the decider’s personal circumstances that neither secular power nor financial advantage is bound to them” (Kuhn vs Popper, 2003, p. 62). This he takes to be a prerequisite of ”rationality”. Perhaps one could instead of rationality just talk informally about conversation; normal, sensible, reasonable, conversation – academic; as opposed to compliance with rules; as opposed to learning to compete, becoming competitive, in a setting of artificially constructed evolution for knowledge; for becoming fit to survive in the academic market meritocracy; to get and keep a job at the university.
There exist today, I would say, texts that are written to be read – like this one – and text that are written to be counted. I know many want to make the counting texts more readable by improving the rules for counting. I think that is a strategy bound to fail. Insofar as reading and writing is part of a game connected to the possibility of leading a good life, it will always be – stupid. As Steven Perlstein put it in an otherwise not always convincing essay, quoting Page Smith:
The vast majority of the so-called research turned out in the modern university is essentially worthless […] It does not result in any measurable benefit to anything or anybody. . . . It is busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale.
I take this to be a symptom of following rules and thus participating in ritual activity, just like students in school – not as a symptom of those conducting research actually being stupid. People are generally a lot less stupid than they seem to be judging from their actions.
What we should do is to make people count, everybody, independently of what they write, and then give them time to read and think, and if they want, also write, without having to think about survival. This would amount to a disestablishment of the ritual of knowledge production. Then it would make no sense to write for any other reason than a desire to say something. That would be good.