Let me return to the idea of how statistic impossibility undermines our common ground from another angle.
This came up time ago in conversation with a colleague at the University of Castilla-La Mancha, Ángel Mateos (another SF fan!!). We were wondering one day about how many readers any of our publications actually get and how many academic essays go completely unread. Ángel came up with the startling idea that it is statistically impossible to read everything published in the field of English Literature.
He didn’t mean on an individual basis but as a collective. Suppose you could count all the teachers, all the students and all the publications and then you’d see that our collective time is not enough to read all that we academics absolutely insist on publishing. It’s a depressing thought. Limbo, after all, exists –and it is not only a cheeky Catholic ruse to frighten parents into baptising their babies!!
Impact indexes, one of the new obsessions dominating our bureaucratic academic life, count the times we’re quoted for good or bad (yes, my post on Laura Mulvey). They register that someone or no one has quoted us, yet cannot quantify how many readers we get for each time we are quoted nor whether no references means no readers at all. I mean, of course, readers of actual published material, apart from editors and peer reviewers.
Professional writers tend to claim that they write with no particular reader in mind and that they’re always surprised by their actual, material presence. We, academics, should be wise to address our writings, likewise, to this blank non-entity. I was going to write that we could also feign cool surprise at the material reality of our readers but I personally needn’t feign anything –I attended a conference last week in which someone quoted me and I almost fainted!! Me??? Is she quoting me?? I introduced myself to the young academic who oddly enough thought I was worth quoting and she was the one surprised at my unexpected materialisation. (My, I realise this sounds Gothic).
I know that someone like Terry Eagleton would not understand my feelings… but there you are, academic life has so many levels and there are so many of us labour so close to limbo all the time. Now, in a clear case of sour grapes, I’ll claim that I wouldn’t like being as big as Eagleton –my nose grows long as I write… yours too…– as I’m sure that for him we, his numerous readers, are more a pest than a pleasure. I’d rather communicate with my readers on a personal basis and exchange ideas, as that’s why I write academic work. Also, because I assume that my readers are my peers, the people I myself read. But… where are you???