Some remarks on the abstract and its place within the world of academic writing

Recently, I was given the following assignment for a class: write an abstract of about a page long for a paper that you will deliver: first, in conference form during one of the final sessions of the class; second, in print form, revised and expanded in accordance with comments on the paper given by the audience of the conference.

It took me an abnormally long time to finish even the abstract, which I turned in several weeks late. And though institutionally basic, something about the assignment itself left me feeling uneasy.

I realized as I began to write that my uneasiness with the assignment was actually a function of my uneasiness with the nature of university research in the sciences in general. And so I asked myself: what does the very normality of this kind of assignment say about the nature of university research today and, by extension, about our condition as members of this sort of institution?

I’ve written abstracts before for papers that I’ve presented. But I’ve almost always written the abstract after the paper was in fact written, and never have I written a paper for a conference. But I take it that the approach of submitting an abstract for a conference before have written the paper is in fact institutionally normative. What does that mean?

The following considerations represent some answers that I have come to on these questions.

The abstract considered as a part of wider academic culture

From the reader’s perspective, the abstract to the journal article essentially is both a preface to a text that follows and a synopsis of that text. It seems to me that the curious nature of the abstract comes from these two different roles that it plays: on the one hand, it is an introduction to the text; on the other hand, it subverts its nature as an introduction insofar as it commandeers the essence, the meat of the text itself, thus making the actual reading of the text superfluous. The abstract is not the only thing in our culture which has this dual nature of, on the one hand, being a gateway to the text and, on the other hand, being a substitution for it: this is also done by, for instance, book reviews and secondary literature on primary sources.

The abstract, in its nature, predetermines the structural possibilities of the text itself by antecedently determining its telos: it is a praeiudicium, in the sense of an antecedent cutting-off of certain possibilities which itself enables and reinforces a manner of being. The abstract is a directing (Richtung) which is also an antecedent setting in place (Vorstellung), and thus a judgment—not in the sense of an approval or disapproval, reward or punishment, but as a setting in place. This triad—enabling, reinforcing, sacrifice—belongs to the abstract.

The abstract introduces a project, which is also determined in relation to a third factor: a deadline, an academic day of reckoning—the end of a semester, a conference date, a publication deadline. Thus, the the abstract belongs to a particular experience of time: time as movement—particularly movement governed by the mood of anxiety—to use the slang, the experience of being “under the gun.” This itself means that this experience of time is an experience of being governed, i.e. it is an experience of a relation to authority. This remains the case even when the authority is no longer a concrete particular figure (e.g. your boss), but instead the academic community as a whole represented in the form of an ideal (e.g. “the demands of scholarship”).

Hence, the relationship of contemporary researchers to each other is one of recognition of mutual authority, and therefore expressed as respect. The academic requirement of extensive footnoting reinforces this sociological relationship.

This also means that, in spite of its pretentions to the contrary, contemporary research is not essentially an extension of Aristotelian empeireia, but of the medieval argumentum ex auctoritate. Even when it is engaging in experiment, the focus rests on the confirmation or disconfirmation of current theory as intersubjectively constructed by the community of scholars, which is secured and stabilized by the propagation of a literature on the topic, which is itself incorporated into organon whereby the purported (but not actual) object of research, may be purportedly approached.

The analogies which govern the relationship between scholars almost all, often unbeknownst to researchers themselves, have an analogous basis in property rights. For instance researchers work in a “field.” Though they may, broadly speaking, work in the same field, they almost never work on the same plot of that same field. A department is generally constituted in such a way that the research of the different members is construed as complementary to each other precisely by ensuring comparatively little overlap. It is in this that academic freedom, as the securing of a safe haven (i.e. free domain) for work-as-expression, actually consists.

The abstract, in its character as both Wesen and Grundlegung,antecedently determines the telos of the article, or at least attempts to. By doing so, it further determines the character of the movement which the writing process is to convey: ideally, that writing ought to have the character of a return to its essence. Expressed plainly, the article must act as a confirmation of the claims made in the abstract itself. The abstract is not a making firm, but a confirmation: a gathering together of “solid” evidence as a being-with where what is said after is subordinated to what has already been declared.

The fact that the direction of a paper often changes in the process of being written does not contradict the above: such is not the ideal case, and, even where it ends fortunately, it disrupts the normal course of scholarship by disrupting prejudice: for instance, if one promises a paper for a conference on topic A, and then, in the process of writing the paper, ends up writing on topic B, one has not conformed to the standard methods of scholarship in a rather obvious way—one has, without intending to, misled others, and thus disrupted the standard academic mood, confirmation of a hypothesis.

Nor does the fact that scholarship often overturns the results of the previous generation conflict with the above. Scholarship generally does this precisely insofar as each generation (predictably) seeks a name for itself, which makes the process of deprecating past work to some degree obligatory, even while acknowledging one’s debt to it. One acknowledges one’s debt by simultaneously acknowledging one’s own superiority (This is even present, though in an ironic way, in our very tendency to think that contemporary scholarship has moved “beyond” 19th century progressivism.)

So the abstract belongs to a wider system within which writing consists in 1) an initial positing, followed by 2) the writing process itself as confirmation/return, 3) under the authority (arche) of the scholarly community qua group of respected peers. These three elements constitute lived time in the form of an exitus-redditus schema, wherein the moment is experienced in the mood of an anxiety between the rest of the beginning and the rest of the return. To the degree scholarship itself moves away from the production of works (e.g. books conceived as completed or definitive projects) and moves towards the production of work (internet scholarship, journal articles always conceived as part of a larger whole, the idea of a “life’s work,” etc.), rest recedes further into absence, and the mood of anxiety becomes more dominant.

The abstract as summary

As summary, the abstract is part of the general attempt to reduce the universe of knowledge to the unity of a point which may be expanded or contracted at will.    The work of summary is a simplification—not in the sense of a dumbing down (though it sometimes is this), but in the sense of a concentration analogous to what one finds in mathematics: just as the square of a length of a line is related to it as its power, such too, is the relation of the work to its summary.

But the article is likewise a synopsis of its sources, and therefore a compression. So too, this compression of the work reflexively acts on the researcher him/herself: in practice, this means that the interval time for writing gets shorter, and both the reading and the writing demands of the output of scholarship themselves become greater. In other words, the relationship of compression occurs not merely at one place in the system of scholarship, but at multiple: the body of knowledge becomes more compressed in its individual parts at the same time as the number of parts expands, and are compressed in their turn as new scholarship compounds those sources into itself. All the while, the activity of scholarship moves more quickly as the number of scholars grow and new technological achievements make the body of knowledge more accessible. To the degree that the “cutting edge” of scholarship becomes ever sharper—i.e. the rapidity of production outstrips what is unfeasible for an individual scholar to accomplish—two things happen: 1) the gap is filled by technological innovation—i.e. the scholar is supplanted by the machine; 2) a social hierarchy is established within academia—for instance, research begins to be carried out by teams, headed by a senior professor who has assistants do the more menial work. In the former case, the human is replaced by the organon, while in the latter certain researchers become part of it. In both cases they are devalued.

Individual researchers must also participate in a process whereby they themselves are summarized: the writing of a CV. This allows their work to be amenable to quantitative measurement. And since the measurement is quantitative and not qualitative, this has an impact on the kind of scholar it idealizes.

The ideal scholar is, first and foremost, a prolific author. This scholar is deeply engaged in the academic community, and presents their findings—or even their lack thereof—on a regular basis at conferences. As such, reputation is tied far more to the ability of the scholar to successfully propagate their work than to the quality of that work. The scholar becomes all the more reputable in their field the more that they themselves become capable of summary, which—given the property analogies inherent in the notion of a field—means the more they restrict themselves to a single area which has been at least potentially predefined by the scholarly community: one becomes “The historian of Leibniz’s natural philosophy,” “the medievalist who works on gender in medieval glossing practices,” or “the cognitive scientist who works on the way that the mind responds in cases of uncertainty,” in exactly the same fashion as, for instance, Rush Limbaugh has garnered fame as “the republican radio talk show host,” at a time when this was something a bit more novel. One is required to philosophize with a hammer, but more than this, it is advantageous for one’s career to use the samehammer to continually drive the same nail into the same piece of wood. Publication becomes less and less a specimen of thinking and more and more an act of propagandizing. Those most equipped for success are shameless promoters (even if they still must be seen as personally amicable by their colleagues), blind to their own faults, with views and concerns which do not radically depart from the scholarly community at large. Meanwhile, the scholar who is perhaps a bit more scrupulous, not a crusader for their own cause, must choose between a) dissimulation accompanied by a bad conscience, on account of portraying research as completed before it has been begun; or b) a care and levelheadedness which may result in obscurity, relegation to the academic proletariat (e.g. being an adjunct), or simply being forced out of the intellectual community altogether.

But to the degree that the numbers and speed of publication increase, this entire model of scholarship becomes unwieldy and unsustainable. More and more scholars, and even entire institutions, are disenfranchised as lacking the material means to engage in the model of scholarship as the supporting of a positive thesis by massive amounts of evidence, and alternatives to this model of scholarship are born. When this happens, the nature of the abstract as essence and its nature as sign begin to move apart. The latter character is retained, while the former, though it remains present, does so only in a deprecated manner. Metaphysically, this corresponds to the revolt against essentialism; politically, it corresponds to the rejection of totalitarianism, especially fascism. Given the self-destruction of the standard research model (i.e. the proliferation of information beyond the capacities of human beings, leading to the transformation of thought from a human activity to a technological resource), the abstract as essence is thus ceded to a past generation, along with the scientific project to which it belonged, i.e. the ideal of knowledge as systematic and universal comprehension of objective being by means of regional ontologies. And so a split is accomplished between the abstract as essence and it as sign.

The Abstract as Sign

As sign, the abstract continues to exemplify the essence of scholarship as the ability to master material in advance, and thus continues to perpetuate the habit of thinking that the old model reinforced: prejudice (in both broad and narrow senses). The paper which is accepted to the conference is the one whose abstract outlines a project that is the most completely determined, and the most in line with the theme of the conference (which is itself likely determined largely by the interests of the aptly-named “market of ideas”); similarly, grant money goes to those projects which are most predetermined towards certain results in their very setup (and therefore often fraught with confirmation bias); the new colleague who is hired is the one whose thinking most conforms to the kind of thinking already dominant in the department.

On the other hand, one point in particular becomes conspicuous: the subject—the fellow researcher to whom respect is accorded, this respect itself being the precondition for progress in every field of scientific research—is undermined. S/he is disenfranchised by the very body of scholarship that s/he helps to create. So, alternative models of scholarship are born in accordance with a new directive: to find a way to affirm the subject, the individual in such a way that that subject becomes neither oppressed, nor discarded, nor opaque when juxtaposed with the ideals of objectivity and abstraction demanded by research itself.

The most basic way in which this happens is through the already alluded to deferral of the return to the same. All research begins to take on a tentative character. The abstract, though retained, is no longer regarded as a summary; the work is no longer regarded as a fixed part of the body of scholarship; The CV is only regarded at best as a partial “expression” of the researcher; and even the work itself relinquishes its character as a complete unit. So what once constituted a fringe element and limit to scholarship—skepticism—moves into its center, and becomes part of a positive project for the first time in history. This occurs as a means of ensuring the freedom of opinion, and thus the irreplaceability, of the individual researcher.

In effect, this means that much new scholarship, having ceded the essentialist project to the past, is deliberately reactionary to that form of scholarship: its basic form is to unmask, refute, or otherwise “deconstruct” (usually not without a heavy dose of caricature) the theses once dominant in past generations, to deny them any scientific character, either by drawing attention to their political repercussions, or by exhibiting a series of relatively small exceptions to rules that are only now regarded as disproving those rules. Put frankly, the scholar sympathizes with the oppressed, the minority in every sense of the term, and so draws forth his/her pen to defend the rights of his/her ken. Cutting edge scholarship locates itself “at the margins.”

In accordance with the demands of irreplaceability, the task of the researcher is no longer to provide facts, but to provide a view: science becomes a form of art. Contradictory views are granted the freedom to coexist either by a) regarding them as partial expressions of some higher truth (as has already happened in some areas, e.g. the relative dominance of syncretic accounts of world religions), or b) by refusing to locate them on the same plane—phrases like “True for you, but not true for me” take on metaphysical significance, and thus become sensical. Even the laws of logic begin to derive their value from their utility in serving the end of a universe of scholars as absolutely free individuals. Otherwise put, the earth is unchained from its sun.

Conclusion

At present, we are witnesses to this turn of scholarship from comprehension to signification, a transformation which is not peculiar to certain “schools of thought,” but represents the movement of science itself. But might we question whether this path, and the alternatives constituted thereby—that between all-encompassing advance summary and skepticism in the service of tolerance, between the encyclopedia and the serial—constitutes a genuine choice?

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