Should we value academic fashions?

by | 23 Jun 2014

Davina_Cooper_Academic_Fashions 1

Fashions come and go, but what about academic or intellectual fashions? Are they like any other, with the same pleasures and limitations? Or 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 — that 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. Many (maybe most) of us feel caught by, or caught up in, the demands, logics and practices of academic fashions, one way or another. From “becoming” to “futurity” and “the event”, we get caught by fashionable concepts, disciplines, and authors, fashionable lines of thinking, and fashionable affects. And we get caught up in the places where fashions are generated: the sites and actors that 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, ways of thinking, and writers, go in and out of style.


What’s wrong with fashion?

Some academics, although not all, grumble about fashionable ideas. They grumble about:

  1. The promise, almost religious or magical, of an intellectual solution — that this is the concept or idea that will work, that will “do” the trick. Modulated ideas, which promise less, seem less appealing. And as ideas swing one way, they are later likely to then swing back.
  2. A faux originality — that beneath the surface of new trendy expressions are 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 what they bring to the context discussed.
  4. Shallow references and truncated intellectual memories as older ideas are quickly read as dated and so ignored.
  5. Fashionable work which dates quickly, too tightly associated with the terminology current during its writing. Fashions are always just ahead of the norm; indeed, as soon as they are named and identified, their fashionability may be in question. Writing about management fashion, Eric Abrahamson remarked, when fashions are adopted by lower reputation organisations, new management fashions emerge.
  6. Fashions produce over-worked conversations and over-studied texts. They produce fashion-fatigue and unevenness, inclusions and exclusions. Fashions are all about boundary-work. On the one hand, they make possible the signals through which membership is identified.  But fashions also produce their counterparts: unfashionable people, texts and ideas, ignored because they’re not “where it’s at”, because they lack aesthetic appeal, because they don’t taste or feel good.
  7. Globally, fashionability is far from 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”.
  8. Recognition and academic attention attaches to those who can do intellectual fashions well, and who can “do” the rapid changes they demand. But while academics may commodify their successful accomplishment of style, the contemporary value placed on striking “new” ideas owes much to the economic and cultural logics of the globalised university sector.

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 fashion simply means some ideas or writers are seen, at particular junctures, as more interesting, illuminating and relevant than others, fashions are probably inevitable.

Materialists claim ideas emerge out of particular social conditions. It is unsurprising then that ideas cluster or develop along particular lines. Their popularity, indeed their very presence, is occasioned by the fact they meet needs — including needs that may be inchoate and unclear until a new emerging perspective expresses them. (Fashionable ideas can be good ideas — being fashionable doesn’t make them less so.) And as conditions and needs change, ideas do also.

But aren’t academic fashions more than the temporary clustering of interest around particular ways of thinking? Don’t they also involve cyclical change — old ideas re-tuned through new terminologies (a bit like the drainpipes revival in new stretch or print fabrics)?

Are fashions more than cyclical intensities also?

What I think academic fashions also signal, and I think positively signal, is the place of appeal, playful expertise and the present moment in the formation of ideas.

Academics often use particular phrases, ideas and scholars because they attract. Certain words and concepts feel good, and they make their user feel good. 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 temporarily successful ideas, thoughts and words?

Indeed, we might see it as a kind of improvised, expressive play — a play which proponents seek to do well through understanding its nuances and getting it right.

Fashion involves attention, learning and experimentation.

It also involves the “now”.

Fashion accounts for (and is an account of) the present; it is what gives particular temporal moments their texture and shape. We “know” eras from their fashions; and it’s their fashions, at least in part, which make them eras. Fashion involves a commitment to, and investment in, the present, understood as a changing present. Few people get credit from effectively accomplishing today the leading fashions of the last century, unless retro is in and that 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 the 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 discourse 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 neither relies upon, nor even necessarily expects, their participation. The address may be noticed if listeners’ interest is piqued, but since they’re unlikely to join in, expressing out of date ideas can prove a solitary performance – lacking 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.

More reflexive fashions?

The force that fashions have in our academic worlds can cause problems, particularly when they undo longer-term commitments, unpopular ways of thinking, and close engagement with a world that doesn’t resemble the latest paradigms.

At the same time, given the academic worlds we have, there may be value in fashion’s emphasis on pleasure, the texture of the present, and the collaborative creation of new ideas and conversations – since fashion is not a solitary pastime.

And if there is some value, without dismissing or trumping what else is around, can academic fashions become more reflexive? More aware that what’s at stake are tastes and intellectual pleasures, not simply or even necessarily the right or better approach?

For, paradoxically, it may be in claiming fashion as a reasonable part of current intellectual life that we can undo its force; 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.

Davina Cooper is Professor of Law and Political Theory at Kent Law School, University of Kent.



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