Fashions come and go, but what about academic or intellectual fashions? Are they like any other, with the same pleasures and limitations? Should ideas be protected from the vagaries and currencies of what is current?
Googling the phrase “academic fashion” produces a lot of hits – almost all address the question of what to wear. Very few tackle the problem of which academics are well aware – how ideas go in and out of popularity. “Academic fads” as a phrase gets closer to this truth, but fads are derided – their lack of staying power evidence the idea was not a committed one, not a good one. But are fashions in ideas all bad? Can anything good be said about them?
The academic world I inhabit, that corner where social and political theory meets law and cultural studies, is a fashion-conscious realm. There are fashionable people (dead, more dead and living); fashionable concepts (including “becoming”, “futurity”, “plurality”, and “the event”); and fashionable lines of thinking (as ideology, structure, the panoptic and intentionality get replaced with new materialities, assemblages, touch, and contingency). And, then, there are fashion’s sites and actors, those who mine, mill, process, amplify, thrash and trash new work.
Of course, there are many fashions, many competing perspectives on what’s fashionable, and not all academic work and writers are captured by fashions’ terms. There are, after all, always those who continue to wear the same suit – or the academic equivalent of the “little black dress”. But fashions nevertheless exist, and because there are fashions, particular ideas (and writers) go in and out of style.
What’s wrong with fashion?
Some academics, although of course not all, grumble about fashionable ideas. They grumble about:
1. The promise, almost religious or magical, of an intellectual solution – this is the concept or idea that will work, that will “do” the trick.
2. A faux originality – beneath the surface of new trendy forms of expression lie the same old ideas.
3. Lazy writing among those who jump on conceptual band-wagons, using words and ideas that sound cool or hip without reflecting sufficiently on their aptness to the context discussed.
4. Shallow references and truncated intellectual memories as older ideas are quickly dated and forgotten.
5. Fashionable work which dates quickly, too tightly associated with the ideas current during its writing.
6. Being (and staying) intellectually fashionable gives those, who do it successfully, recognition and academic attention. Eric Abrahamson, writing about management fashion, remarks that when fashions are adopted by lower reputation organisations, new management fashions emerge. Fashions are always just ahead of the norm; indeed, as soon as they are named and identified, their fashionability is in question.
7. Fashion produces conformity and saturation – over-worked conversations and over-studied texts; it produces fashion-fatigue and unevenness. Certain texts and ideas are ignored because they’re not “where it’s at”; they don’t taste or feel good.
8. Globally too, fashionability is not evenly spread. While countries may have their own trends and styles, certain places dominate (intellectually and economically) in determining who and what is “worth” following. As one European anthropologist commented, “Now it is fashionable to look to the US and have American partners, even if better cooperative partners would be found elsewhere. There are those who publish in our less spoken language; and those who calculate their cv-fitness and only publish in highly rated international journals”
9. Often, although not always (or everywhere), fashion’s logic and that of economic and professional imperatives merge. Academics able to commodify their expertise and style charge thousands for talks.
But is there anything good to be said about academic fashion? Or, to put the question somewhat differently, are fashions inevitable?
Paying attention to fashion
If it simply means some ideas or writers are seen, at particular points, as more interesting than others, fashions may be inevitable. Ideas, so materialists anyway claim, emerge out of particular social conditions; as conditions change, ideas do also.
Even academic fields, which explicitly present themselves as fashion-free zones, still experience movement. Proponents may suggest their field develops gradually – a build-up of intellectual sediment as conversations progress across time. They may suggest development takes place through paradigmatic, not necessarily cyclical, shifts; few fields though seek ossification.
But isn’t academic fashion more than the temporary clustering of interest? Isn’t it also more than cyclical change – of old ideas returned (and re-tuned) through new terminologies (a bit like the drain-pipes revival in new stretch or print fabrics)?
What I think academic fashion also signals, perhaps positively signals, is the place of desirability, playful expertise and the texture of the present in ideas.
Academics often use particular phrases, ideas and scholars because they appeal. This appeal is not a detached one – or at least not only that. Certain words and concepts feel good, and they make their user feel good. They are popular because they meet needs – often inchoate and unclear until a new emergent perspective expresses them. (Fashionable ideas can be good ideas – being fashionable doesn’t make them less so.)
It’s easy to be cynical about the transient nature of fashion. But is there anything inherently wrong in the satisfaction and pleasure that come from impermanently successful ideas, thoughts and words?
One way to validate this pleasure is to see it as a kind of improvised, expressive play – a play which proponents seek to do well, a conversation they have entered which depends on being intelligible to others. Being able to use the right language and ideas effectively is like knowing how to dress, socially interact or electronically network, which depends on others’ recognition also. It involves attention, learning and experimentation.
And it depends on being rooted in the “now”. Fashion is about the now, about what gives particular temporal moments texture and shape. We “know” particular eras from their fashions; and it’s their fashions, at least in part, which make them eras. Fashion is a commitment to, and investment in, the present. Few people get credit from effectively accomplishing today the leading fashions of the last century, unless retro is in and this particular period in also. Likewise, wearing clothes or expressing ideas that may prove hugely popular and influential in ten years’ time has little current cachet. Being at the forefront of an intellectual moment is good it seems, being ahead of it not so.
Whether it relates to clothes, furniture or ideas, fashion is conversational. Successful participants enter into and shape the chat that is actually happening. Expressing ideas from earlier or future eras is more like a monologue or soliloquy – a non-conversational address to oneself or others that doesn’t rely upon, or even necessarily expect, their participation. The address may be noticed if listeners’ interest is piqued, but since they’re unlikely to join in, out of date speech functions as a solitary performance – without the participatory flow and dialogue through which ideas and practices evolve.
Desire, pleasure, and the now – good values perhaps for other kinds of fashion, but for ideas…? Isn’t there a significant difference between ways of understanding the world, which may impact on the world, and deciding what to wear or how to furnish one’s home? Maybe some ideas can afford to be play-like, but others – critical engagements with poverty and war or public health analyses, for example – need to be serious and thought-through, not just framed in terms that are fashionable.
The contemporary interest in striking ideas – tail-blazed by some, taken up (in toned-down, synthesised form) by others – may owe much to the economics and social capital of professional academic requirements to publish, give talks, and be well cited. Modulated ideas, which less clearly appear new, are less likely to be read and discussed – at least in certain quarters. And as ideas swing one way, they are likely to then swing back.
There are clearly problems when intellectual ideas feel like a merry-go-round or pendulum.
Longer-term commitments, unpopular ways of thinking, close engagement with a world that doesn’t seem to match the latest paradigms are also – often more – important.
There’s much I don’t like about academic fashions. At the same time, given the academic world we have, can we find some value in fashion’s emphasis on pleasure, sensations, the texture of the present, and the collaborative creation of new ideas and conversations – since fashion is not a solitary pastime?
And if we do, without dismissing or trumping what else is around, could academic fashions become more reflexive? More aware that what’s at stake are tastes and pleasures, not simply or even necessarily the right or better approach?
Paradoxically, it may be in claiming fashion as a reasonable part of intellectual life that we can unsettle its value; recognising that many of the ideas in vogue today, however legitimately pleasurable and interesting, are likely to be cast “out” as dated or old-fashioned by (tomorrow’s) tomorrow.