A pandemic is not the time for academic opportunism

The urge to be proved right and the mantra of publish or perish amount to a toxic scholarly brew. Reflection is the best policy, says Simone Eringfeld 

June 16, 2020
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The coronavirus may have upended many things in academia, but the incessant pressure to publish is not one of them. Alongside the virologists and public health experts rushing out thousands of papers, philosophers, sociologists and other intellectuals have been scrambling to give their hot takes.

Some have been illuminating, such as Noah Harari’s treatise on the dangers of increased surveillance or David Harvey’s anti-capitalist critique of pandemic politics. Others, however, have been rushed and unoriginal, at times veering dangerously close to self-plagiarism.

The recycling of pre-existing ideas is not unusual and often helps to deepen theoretical insight. Yet this kind of reuse becomes problematic whenever old concepts and theories are uncritically applied to new contexts as ready-made frameworks for a one-size-fits-all purpose.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben got into trouble at the end of March with his statement that the current pandemic illustrates the “state of exception”, by which he means power-seeking governments that abuse moments of crisis to take away people’s constitutional rights. For Agamben, the exceptional lockdown measures in Italy were exaggerated and unjustified. Having firstly exploited “terrorism” as an excuse to strip citizens of their freedoms, he wrote, the government was now using this “flu” as a justification to further reduce its people to a rightless “bare life”. This reasoning caused a considerable stir amongst philosophers.

A more severe case of the “copy-paste” method came from the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, a controversial figure who has already been accused of self-plagiarism a number of times. Almost directly after the outbreak of Covid-19 he announced a new book fully dedicated to the pandemic. Surely such a rushed publication would have to contain at least some recycled material?

This back-and-forth between public intellectuals reflects a widespread issue in academia: publication pressure mixed with opportunism. A former colleague of mine described the corona crisis as a “godsent gift, straight from heaven” and sees the pandemic primarily as an opportunity to create more intellectual buzz. That attitude is contagious: I have asked myself many times over the past few weeks if I wasn’t missing out on major opportunities by not participating in the mad rush to publish.

But the race to be first in line creates an ambience of stress and haste, resulting in sloppiness. Put that together with an all too human urge to be seen to have been right all along and you can see why some thinkers fail to resist the urge to self-plagiarise.

Today, many observers argue that there will be no return to a pre-pandemic “normal”. The crisis will, they maintain, change the world forever, just as the Second World War or the 9/11 terrorist attacks did. After months of collectively staying indoors, we will wake up in a new reality.

Perhaps students will soon be able to study post-coronial theory, just as you can specialise in postcolonial philosophy. What will this new domain of knowledge look like? Which voices will dominate its debates, and with what kind of vocabulary? For the language we use to give meaning to the pandemic is neither innocent nor without consequence. We already saw how quickly racism and xenophobia gained prominence when the US president called the virus “Chinese”. Amidst the flood of hot takes, it is therefore useful to take a step back and observe who gets to have their say – and, even more importantly, who does not.

As the old saying goes, “knowledge is power”, but the philosopher Michel Foucault helpfully pointed out that it is the most powerful ones who get to decide what knowledge is. These questions about which perspectives are deemed most authoritative and which voices are offered platforms have been given added urgency by the anti-racist demonstrations following the tragic death of George Floyd; academics are increasingly asking how this process of knowledge production could become more democratic and diverse.

Yet that is easier said than done, especially when there is a pressing need to interpret events as impactful as a global pandemic. The result? A fallback to an elitist power system of knowledge production, conforming to the merciless credo of publish or perish.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste”, Winston Churchill once said, and he is right. The corona crisis offers us the unique possibility to reconsider our old ways of being and doing, and to eventually build up a new vocabulary with which to articulate a post-Covid world that can potentially be more equitable, sustainable and safe.

However, this will not happen if we merely exploit the pandemic as an opportunity to hastily, unreflectively restate our prebaked theoretical discourses. We need to take time for contemplation and create space for new, divergent voices and ways of thinking that stood powerless in the normality of yesterday.

The emergence of post-coronial theory needs time, space and open-mindedness.

Simone Eringfeld is an education activist and produces the podcast Cambridge Quaranchats. She is currently undertaking a master’s degree in education and international development at the University of Cambridge

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Reader's comments (1)

I am not sure yet whether this is satire or hypocrisy: "...an education activist [who] produces the podcast Cambridge Quaranchats" accuses others of opportunism in the wake of the pandemic while peddling the notion of "post-coronial theory". Please, do not get me wrong, I do not contest the substance of her argument re academic opportunism and bandwagoning, but I still find it hilarious that a person can have so little self-awareness.