Day By Day

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Exciting Times -- The Collapse of Theory

"Agnostic" over at Gene Expression has done some rough citation analysis on academic intellectual fads [here]. He has attempted to quantify a phenomenon that has been apparent to anyone who has spent time in the groves of academe -- the collapse of theory. He writes:

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....
He then charts the incidence of use of various buzzwords [examples: "social construction", "psychoanalysis", "postmodern", "marxist", etc.] associated with these theories in academic journals. Two points leap out from his analysis.

First, there was a precipitous decline in the use of these terms in the 1990's.

[A]side 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.
I noted this at the time and ascribed it to the collapse of the Soviet Union and a consequent decline in the attractiveness of Marxism, which seemed to me to underlay the victimological approach that characterized all of these theories, but the "Agnostic" article points out that the appeal of Marxism began to decline as early as the 1980's when the Soviet Empire was still intact.

I tend to apply a functionalist analysis to intellectual history -- ideas tend to persist and flourish if they serve a function for the broader society and its institutions. They cease to have appeal once they become dysfunctional. The mid-twentieth century expansion of the social sciences, for instance, served the interests of the national security state as well as providing a vehicle for the rise of a new elite (the self-styled "best and the brightest") that based its claims to authority in academic credentials. The rise of ethnic, feminist, and gay studies served the interests of the various "liberation movements" (power grabs) that emerged in post-war America by providing them with grievance narratives that sustained a sense of group cohesion as well as a rationale for their claims to privilege and power. The apotheosis of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt served the interests of the Republican and Democratic Parties respectively.

"Agnostic" points to two exceptions to the general collapse of theory. These are "Orientalism" and "post-colonialism" both of which have obvious utility for opponents of American foreign policy. Because powerful groups find these ideas congenial and useful they survive while other theories are abandoned. This perspective suggests that the general collapse of theory came about because they are no longer useful to powerful political and social interest groups. "Agnostic" does not develop this idea, nor will I at this time, but it is something that I plan to think about.