Monday, September 22, 2008
[Note: I'm rushing this out before the school week starts, as I need sleep, so if it seems unedited, that's why.]
We are living in very exciting times -- at long last, we've broken the stranglehold that a variety of silly Blank Slate theories have held on the arts, humanities, and social sciences. To some, this may sound strange, but things have decisively changed within the past 10 years, and these so-called theories are now moribund. To let those out-of-the-loop in on the news, and to quantify what insiders have already suspected, I've drawn graphs of the rise and fall of these fashions.
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.
Admittedly, a better estimate would be to measure the number of articles with the term in a given year, divided by the total number of articles that JSTOR has for that year, to yield a frequency. But I don't have the data on total articles. However, on time-scales when we don't expect a huge change in the total number of articles published -- say, over a few decades -- then we can take the total to be approximately constant and use only the raw counts of articles with the keyword. Crucially, although this may warp our view of an increasing trend -- which could be due to more articles being written in total, while the frequency of those of interest stays the same -- a sustained decline must be real.
Here are the graphs (an asterisk means the word endings could vary):
First, there are two exceptions to the overall pattern of decline -- orientalism and post-colonialism. The former may be declining, but it's hard to say one way or the other. The latter, though, was holding steady in 2002, although its growth rate had clearly slowed down, so its demise seems to be only a matter of time -- by 2010 at the latest, it should show a down-turn.
Second, aside from Marxism, which peaked in 1988, and social constructionism, which declined starting in 2002 *, the others began to fall from roughly 1993 to 1998. It is astonishing that such a narrow time frame saw the fall of fashions that varied so much in when they were founded. Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism are very old compared to deconstruction or postmodernism, yet it was as though during the 1990s an academia-wide clean-up swept away all the bullshit, no matter how long it had been festering there.
If we wanted to model this, we would probably use an S-I-R type model for the spread of infectious diseases. But we'd have to include an exogenous shock sometime during the 1990s since it's unlikely that epidemics that had begun 100 years apart would, of their own inner workings, decline at the same time. It's as if we started to live in sparser population densities, where diseases old and new could not spread so easily, or if we wandered onto an antibiotic that cured of us diseases, some of which had plagued us for much longer than others.
Third, notice how simple most of the curves look -- few show lots of noise, or the presence of smaller-scale cycles. That's despite the vicissitudes of politics, economics, and other social changes -- hardly any of it made an impact on the world of ideas. I guess they don't call it the Ivory Tower for nothing. About the only case you could make is for McCarthyism halting the growth of Marxist ideas during most of the 1950s. The fall of the Berlin Wall does not explain why Marxism declined then -- its growth rate was already grinding to a halt for the previous decade, compared to its explosion during the 1960s and '70s.
Still, it could be that there was a general anti-communist zeitgeist in the 1950s, so that academics would have cooled off to Marxism of their own accord, not because they were afraid of McCarthy or whoever else. Importantly, that's only one plausible link -- there are a billion others that don't pan out, so it may be that our plausible link happened due to chance: when you test 1000 correlations, 5 of them will be significant at the 0.005 level, even though they're only the result of chance.
This suggests that a "great man theory" of intellectual history is wrong. Surely someone needs to invent the theory, and it may be complex enough that if that person hadn't existed, the theory wouldn't have existed (contra the view that somebody or other would've invented Marxism). After that, though, we write a system of differential equations to model the dynamics of the classes of individuals involved -- perhaps just two, believers and non-believers -- and these interactions between individuals are all that matter. How many persuasive tracts were there against postmodernism or Marxism, for example? And yet none of those convinced the believers since the time wasn't right. Postmodernism was already growing at a slower rate in 1995 when the Sokal Affair put its silliness in the spotlight, and even then its growth rate didn't decline even faster as a result. Kind of depressing for iconoclasts -- but at least you can rest assured that at some point, the fuckers will get theirs.
Fourth, the sudden decline of all the big-shot theories you'd study in a literary theory or critical theory class is certainly behind the recent angst of arts and humanities grad students. Without a big theory, you can't pretend you have specialized training and shouldn't be treated as such -- high school English teachers may be fine with that, but if you're in grad school, that's admitting you failed as an academic. You want a good reputation. Isn't it strange, though, that no replacement theories have filled the void? That's because everyone now understands that the whole thing was a big joke, and aren't going to be suckered again anytime soon. Now the generalizing and biological approaches to the humanities and social sciences are dominant -- but that's for another post.
Also, as you sense all of the big theories are dying, you must realize that you have no future: you'll be increasingly unable to publish articles -- or have others cite you -- and even if you became a professor, you wouldn't be able to recruit grad students into your pyramid scheme, or enroll students in your classes, since their interest would be even lower than among current students. Someone who knows more about intellectual history should compare arts and humanities grad students today to the priestly caste that was becoming obsolete as Europe became more rational and secular. I'm sure they rationalized their angst as a spiritual or intellectual crisis, just like today's grad students might say that they had an epiphany -- but in reality, they're just recognizing how bleak their economic prospects are and are opting for greener pastures.
Fifth and last, I don't know about the rest of you, but I find young people today very refreshing. Let's look at 18 year-olds -- the impressionable college freshmen, who could be infected by their dopey professors. If they begin freshman year just 1 year after the theory's peak, the idea is still very popular, so they'll get infected. If we allow, say 5 years of cooling off and decay, professors won't talk about it so much, or will be use a less strident tone of voice, so that only the students who were destined to latch on to some stupid theory will get infected. Depending on the trend, this makes the safe cohort born in 1975 at the oldest (for Marxism), or 1989 at the youngest (for social constructionism). And obviously even among safe cohorts, some are safer than others -- people my age (27) may not go in for Marxism much, but have heard of it or taken it seriously at some point (even if to argue against it intellectually). But 18 year-olds today weren't even born when Marxism had already started to die.
It's easy to fossilize your picture of the world from your formative years of 15 to 24, but things change. If you turned off the radio in the mid-late '90s, you missed four years of great rock and rap music that came out from 2003 to 2006 (although now you can keep it off again). If you write off dating a 21 year-old grad student on the assumption that they're mostly angry feminist hags, you're missing out. And if you'd rather socialize with people your own age because younger people are too immature to have an intelligent discussion -- ask yourself when the last time was that you didn't have to dance around all kinds of topics with Gen-X or Baby Boomer peers because of the moronic beliefs they've been infected with since their young adult years? Try talking to a college student about human evolution -- they're pretty open-minded. My almost-30 housemate, by comparison, was eager to hear that what I'm studying would show that there's no master race after all. What a loser.
* I started the graph of social constructionism at 1960, even though it extends back to 1876, since it was always at a very low level before then (less than 5 per year, often 0). Including these points didn't make the recent decline so apparent in the graph, so out they went.