Chronicle of a satisfaction foretold
Academic research seems to be neo-liberally recycled from one conference to the next, or from one publication to the other, just to produce X papers per year. But how many times can one be innovative, original, and radical over the course of a career? A story about finding (and possibly losing) a true love: anthropology.
“The story of modern economic thought can after all be told as the shift from political economy–a space with open borders onto what are today anthropology, sociology, history and political science–to the discipline now [simplified and] simply called economics.”
From political economy to economics…
There is no better explanation for Jevon’s marginality than the oft-used example of diamonds: they are more expensive than water because the anticipated satisfaction for a unit of diamonds is bigger than that attached to a unit of water. It is this added value, with every (marginal) unit consumed, this satisfaction foretold, that establishes the price of a good. If only the marginal revolution were what it seemed–talking about the marginalised–I would have probably been profoundly touched and stayed within the economics closet, as deep down inside I have always supported the underdog.
Marginalists did dominate economics departments until recently, with their “childish passion for maths”, as Piketty endearingly calls it, an easy way of obtaining scientific appearances without having to answer the more intricate/complex questions of the world. But it was these profound concerns that I sought to understand more about; and throughout the first two years of studying economics I was living with a daily frustration that nobody was training me adequately to manage them.
Then it just happened, as always in my life so far, I met some inspiring architects/urbanists who were working with anthropologists.
…to the magic of anthropology!
But anthropology was. It opened up a whole new world for me.
A discipline under neoliberal siege
So why did my mind-opening experience of anthropology end? Partly because of the way academia has evolved under neoliberal pressure, a subject of much wailing and gnashing of teeth in academic press and blogs (my colleague David Berliner‘s post is the best recent example I can think of).
But the perverted ways of quantifying work that have invaded the cloisters of our great centres of knowledge under the all-encompassing culture of accountability are only about Jevon’s marginality. Numbers of published papers, numbers of other people quoting the respective papers in other papers, numbers, numbers, numbers, of keywords and shiny words and sexy words: all serve to justify “added value” of research.
The myths of the academic game
Nevertheless, over the last three decades excessive quantification of thought has brought such repetitive results. It is frustrating to see how ideas are recycled from one conference to the next, from one publication to the next–the natural result of authors confronted with obligations to produce X papers per year. But how many times a year can one be innovative, original or radical? Frankly, how many times is someone innovative, original, and radical over the course of a career?
The sad fact is that originality, innovation or radicalism are not really the ends of the academic game, despite much posturing to the contrary. Conformity is the most assured route to academic survival, not originality, a fact that neoliberal quantification is only intensifying. The rapid publication rates ensure mediocrity. And this applies to any academic discipline, not just anthropology. But my supreme sadness is that, in the quest for survival, the giga-literature we enslave ourselves to produce and read condemns us to produce neurotically niched research, violently unimportant. The initial mind-opening potential of anthropology has closed in on me like the horizon disappearing to a single point.
Originality vs. conformity
This article was originally published on Allegra Lab: Anthropology, Law, Art & World.
I am a scientific associate at the Laboratoire d’anthropologie des mondes contemporains, a research centre of the Université Libre de Bruxelles, having been a Postdoctoral Fellow at Leeds Beckett University and at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University, Tokyo.
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