Article Fever: On Scholarly Reading

The archive, Jacques Derrida tells us in his 1995 book Archive Fever, “is not only the stockroom and the conservatory for archivable contents of the past which would exist in any case, and just the same, without the archive. [. . .] No, the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines [both] the structure of the archivable contents even as it comes into existence and its relationship to the future.” That is to say, how and what we “archive” both presupposes a certain kind of document that is available to us to collect, conserve, and categorize (e.g. a letter or, as Derrida aptly foresees, an e-mail) and conditions how future generations will use that archive to interpret our history. What interests me in this post is whether the same idea (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) applies to scholarly reading and its chief archivable content: the journal article.

I suspect that I’m no different than most other historians or scholars of the humanities and social sciences in my obsession with reading. Sad though it may be, I hardly ever read for pleasure anymore. The literary critic Christopher Ricks has remarked several times that he envies his brother for being able to read poetry for pleasure while the only mode of reading left to him is analysis and critique. For scholars there’s always something to be gained from a text: “It’s a little like the fruits of autumn as against the blossoms of spring,” says Ricks. “You can’t live in two seasons.” Everything that I come across on the Internet or in the library is a potential “source”: as such, I must assimilate it into my infinitely expanding bibliography that serves my research and teaching ends. Not only do I consume everything I read with a voracious and insatiable hunger for more, I also must “possess” the literary object somehow, either as a digital citation (I use Zotero) or as a physical book to be added to my unnecessarily large library. Ironically, despite the high intellectual aims of such activity, I often feel like a caveman who jealously guards his collection of precious rocks and bones, waving a knobby club to ward off scavengers. I do in fact lend and occasionally give away books, but I can never shake that feeling of raw, primitive possessiveness.

Both printed books and the new digital media are subject to accumulation, but I would argue that the latter — digitized journal articles, e-books, blog posts, etc. — are even more accumulatable than the former. These new forms of scholarly capital are more liquid than ever before: everything is easily downloadable, transferable, sharable, and citable. Companies like JSTOR and Project Muse provide the articles and ebrary the books, all just a few clicks away. Copyright battles can only slow the trend toward universal access (and in some unfortunate cases like the demise of Google Books, set it back), but it is unlikely that they will stop it. Not that such access will ever be “free” or truly “universal”: publishers will certainly devise new ways of extracting profit from digital resources, and a university affiliation may be the price that every scholar must pay.

Beyond the economic dimension, bad social habits that have always plagued scholars like name-dropping and unsolicited book recommendation (“You should read . . .”) are only made worse by the near universal availability of online sources. Greater awareness of other scholars’ work certainly benefits our knowledge and opens new possibilities for collaboration, but the surfeit of digital information has also had a negative consequence: an increasing pressure on scholars to master an ever-expanding body of literature. “Master” is too strong a word, because being “up to date” or au courant with current trends in one’s discipline is a Sisyphean task. We might take some comfort in Max Weber’s observation nearly a century ago that what distinguishes the arts from the sciences (Wissenschaften) is that the products of the former are potentially eternal (“the great work”) whereas those of the latter are by nature ephemeral and subject to endless revision. But any such comfort soon fades when considering the sciences in the twenty-first century. The pace of ephemerality and revision has sped up, almost impossibly so. People often point to the increasing rate of technological progress in the past half century without looking at culture and the humanities, but the rate of change in those domains is almost as rapid. The scholarly reader cannot read fast enough. And when it comes time to write — or, to put it in market terms, to “produce” — we must go about the dreary business with the knowledge that some or all of what we write will already seem obsolete by the time it’s published.

I’ve deliberately exaggerated our present condition of “article fever” in order to draw attention to it. As Theodor W. Adorno was wont to say about psychoanalysis, the only truth in it are the exaggerations. So, as an empirical corrective, I offer you, dear reader, a statistical survey of my own case of article fever that’s free of exaggeration:

 

  • I regularly check 39 scholarly journals (both American and foreign) for articles and reviews that are relevant to my work
  • each of these journals publishes about 4 issues per year and includes about 5 articles per issue; that makes for a total of 780 potentially relevant articles
  • on average, about 10% of these articles are in fact relevant (either directly or indirectly), so that makes for approx. 78 new articles that I will read in any given year; each article is about 20 pages long, which yields a total of 1,560 pages; another way to look at it is that I read the equivalent of 1.5 War and Peaces-worth of new articles per year; and I’m not taking into account book reviews (2-3 pages each), of which there might be as many as 10 that are relevant per issue (!)
  • manageable? yes, but each new article functions more or less like a Wikipedia page: the footnotes, which sometimes include actual hyperlinks to other articles, contain a plethora of references and tangents to other things that I haven’t read; each new article thus acts as a multiplier, directing me back to an average of, say, 10 older articles that I “should” (the categorical imperative is strong in the academe) read
  • all else being the same, that means that each new article refers to at least 200 pages of contextual material that I will subsequently, though not immediately, read; from 1.5 War and Peaces I can easily extract the equivalent of another 16 treks through Tolstoy; that’s about 17,160 pages per year
  • these statistics don’t at all take into account books per year, which would dramatically increase the page total, nor articles in more popular publications, like the New York or London Review of Books

 

Assuming I get a job and grow older in the profession (a thought at once hopeful and terribly depressing), the number of contextual articles should decrease — I’ll have already read the older things — and with added familiarity with the field, my reading (i.e. skimming) speed should increase. But these factors will likely be canceled out by new inquiries and new fields of interest. That’s all to say that every young scholar like myself (and every older scholar who broaches a new subject) experiences a learning curve, or “reading curve,” that flattens out in the future. In this sense, Derrida’s messianic remarks in Archive Fever might as well apply to “article fever”:

the question of the archive is not, I repeat, a question of the past, the question of a concept dealing with the past which already might either be at our disposal or not at out disposal [. . .], but rather a question of the future, the very question of the future, question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what this will have meant, we will only know tomorrow. Perhaps. A spectral messianicity is at work in the concept of the archive and like religion, like history, like science itself, this ties it to a very singular experience of the promise.

Like the promise of the Messiah’s return, however, the ideal of having read all the things never quite comes. At least you’ve finished reading this post.

 

email

Comments are disabled for this post