Readers, Bureaucrats and the Police*

“I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.”

Michel Foucault

In the old days, before there were journals, scientists would write letters to each other about their results. These would then be circulated and (if I recall my history of science correctly) the readers would add their own comments, sometimes the results of their own attempts to replicate those in the original letter. There was very little question back then about who your peers were.

Today we have too many peers to know exactly who we’re writing for, and even who we are. But that does not mean we can’t identify some of our readers concretely. I think too many academic writers see the journal literature as a completely anonymous authority, a faceless bureaucracy that you somehow have to force or fool into accepting your work.

In order to change this image of the journals, keep that old-fashioned circulation of letters in mind. As your research progresses, make a conscious effort to imagine your readers. Who might be interested in the results you are producing? Name these people, and learn something about them. Where do they work? Where do they publish? And don’t just imagine commmunicating with them. Write them emails. Seek them out at conferences. Arrange to visit their institutions.

Putting faces on your readership is a way of taking ownership of your writing. After all, it also requires imagining your own face on it. Publishing—which is to say, making your ideas public—is a way of communicating with other researchers. It is not just an exam you pass to impress your university administrators and further your career.

Much as I admire Foucault, I think his resentment (even ressentiment?) of academic writing is an unnecessary affectation. Why should sincere researchers, striving, shoulder to shoulder, in the pursuit of knowledge, leave anything to the police and the bureaucrats? We should insist on letting only our peers evaluate our “papers” (admittedly in another sense), i.e., those with whom we also sometimes speak face-to-face. It is their “morality” we should engage with when we write.

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*This is an old post from my retired blog.

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