The Compression of the Past

By | January 28, 2015

This short blog transcribes a thought perhaps more salient and pressing than original. There are those who believe that our post-1970s financial capitalist present is characterized above all by acceleration. For example, Giddens compares modernity to an out-of-control juggernaught; Archer now writes of the advent of ‘unbound morphogenetic society’; and so on. It is salutary to recall, however, that it was Marx who long ago in the liberal capitalism of the mid-19th century wrote of solids melting into air. Others have suggested that the acceleration has occurred at the cultural rather than the structural level. This blog should punch its weight whichever stance finds favour.

My focus is on a compression of the past occasioned by an acceleration either structural, cultural or both. Check out recent writings in sociology, most evidently in journals. Setting aside those few authors who have waited overly long before publishing their work (as a journal editor, I would suggest that it shows), and scan the references. They will likely comprise, I contend, a handful of ‘reified’ classics from the past century and a flowering profusion of twenty-first century offerings.

What am I getting at? Sociologists and other academics under absurd,anti-intellectual, institutionalized pressure to accelerate productivity and output – epitomized by the REF – tend to take off from (a) a shorthand genuflection to a classic or two and (b) the current ‘state of play’. Pressed for time and space and ‘blessed’ with instant electronic access to a bewildering and heterogeneous assembly of up-to-date sources, we too readily reference an exemplar from (a) (e.g. in my primary domain of health, Parsons on the sick role, Freidson on lay referral, Bury on biographical disruption), then make our pitch in relation to (b) what we have most recently digested. What this means, in effect, is that we are simply too busy/rushed to read anything but the – ‘obviously’ prioritized – latest stuff ‘hot-off-the-press’.

This links to my argument for ‘meta-reflection’ (see my related blog). A breathing space, let alone a commitment to meta-reflection, does not guarantee that we re-inspect the work of our predecessors however, for all that doing so might save us time and effort and cut out the need to reinvent numerous wheels. Who amongst those of us committed to researching health has re-read Parsons, Freidson or even Bury? Maybe there are those who reference their works without ever having felt the need or had the time to read them at all? But how crazy is that?

To paraphrase Schutz, the sociology of our consociates has for no good reason not only trumped but led to the ‘de-fashioning’ and near-erasure of that of our predecessors.

I have during my relaxed and fortuitously privileged babyboomer career encountered many an illuminating piece written between (i) the conventional, white, masculine and largely European ‘canon’ and (ii) today’s output. Much of it has been American: sociology in the USA took off and was institutionally embedded early. Who reads Meads now (a ‘loser’ who published nothing in his lifetime), let alone Du Bois? And who taps into that rich vein of early feminist sociology suppressed at the time but now painstakingly recovered for us?

Ultimately, it is a simple message: there is, I think, an important body of literature published (or indeed unpublished) by our predecessors that is slipping by us as we construct our academic careers – proactively, in an era of uncompromising uncertainty (Sennett). We are being constrained to neglect our predecessors. The past has been compressed and is now a mere prelude to the present. ‘Presenteeism’ rules!

When you are knocking on a bit you are allowed to proffer a word or two of counsel (maybe). Take out the (minimum) insurance you need to keep your line-managers off your back; but don’t ever give up on scholarship’s input into civil society and the public sphere! Otherwise, what’s the point? And this means taking full advantage of what we have leaned from generation to generation, cohort to